Brown e-mails reveal uncaring official

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist

As Hurricane Katrina raised a watery fist almost 30 feet high and shook it at Biloxi, as a nightmare of wind and ocean took shape off New Orleans, as millions of people fled for their lives, huddled in fear or made peace with God, Brownie sought fashion advice.

“Tie or not for tonight?” he e-mailed an aide. “Button-down blue shirt?”

You remember Brownie, of course. Former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown — forever Brownie after a few ill-fated words of support from President Bush: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Days later, Brownie was out of work, the national consensus being that he had not done much of a job at all in managing the federal response to Katrina. Though he remains on the government payroll — supposedly because his expertise is needed to help in the investigation of FEMA’s bungling — Brownie is doubtless updating his resume.

I imagine the job search will be a hard one, what with his name being all over a foul-up of historic proportions. Nor will last week’s release of e-mails he wrote immediately before, during and after the disaster make Brown’s life any easier. They reveal that as the worst U.S. natural disaster in modern memory took shape around him, he was looking for a dog-sitter (“If you know of any responsible kids, let me know.”), worrying about his image (“If you’ll look at my lovely FEMA attire you’ll really vomit. I am a fashion god.”), and wishing he were elsewhere (“Can I quit now?”).

A couple of caveats here: One, anyone’s e-mail, released to public scrutiny, would probably make him or her look silly. It’s the nature of the medium; e-mail often serves as a repository for the detritus of cluttered minds.

Two, the excerpts were released by a House panel at the behest of Congressman Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Louisiana. In other words, hardly a disinterested observer.

But even granting all that, Brown’s exchanges ought to raise eyebrows. I mean, how to rationalize the note from an aide advising him to “roll up the sleeves of your shirt” in order to “look more hardworking” on television? As if, in this moment of crisis, Brown’s image was what mattered most.

Then there’s the message from Marty Bahamonde, FEMA’s only “boots on the ground” representative in New Orleans in the first days; he described a situation “past critical”: “People dying, food gone, water going, the homeless and hungry massing in the streets.” To which Brown’s response was: “Thanks for update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?”

Tweak?

As revealed last month, it was three hours after Bahamonde sent this message about thirst and hunger in New Orleans that an aide to Brown wrote her colleagues about the need to free up enough time in the director’s schedule for him to have dinner because restaurants in Baton Rouge were crowded and “he needs much more than 20 or 30 minutes.”

Which prompted Bahamonde to message a co-worker: “I just ate an MRE” — Meal Ready to Eat, or military rations — “and crapped in the hallway of the Superdome along with 30,000 other close friends, so I understand her concern about busy restaurants.”

Perhaps he can be forgiven for being a tad bitter.

You can line up all the caveats you want on Brown’s side of the ledger. You are still left with an agency chief — and thus, an agency — stunningly detached from, and callously unmoved by, the suffering they were supposed to address. New Orleans is being engulfed and Brownie’s picking out ties?

But what else can you expect when a man with no experience in disaster relief is put in charge of disaster relief because he had an in with the president?

It helps to have friends in high places, I suppose. Too bad the Gulf Coast didn’t have a few.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com