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Video: Former mayor, FEMA chief look back on Katrina

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    >>> it was five years ago that this neighborhood and this city were brought to their knees by hurricane katrina as that storm roared ashore. and the historic city of new orleans took a body blow.

    >> this is just an unbelievable scene.

    >> thousands who didn't evacuate were forced to take shelter at the superdome and the convention center . there was not enough help. frustration and anger overflowed, and the catastrophic breach of the levees caused the worst damage, devastating the ninth ward. an estimated 1,800 people in louisiana and mississippi died in the aftermath of katrina . hundreds of thousands more were displaced for months or years. five years later some residents are still living in trailers. ray nagin was the mayor of new orleans during hurricane katrina . michael brown was the federal government 's point man as the head of fema. gentlemen, good morning. nice to see you both.

    >> good morning.

    >> the first time you've seen each other in quite a while.

    >> five years.

    >> if i ask you both quickly, when you hear the name katrina , ray, what is the most searing image? what's the most lasting memory that you have?

    >> there's a couple of things but the deception of katrina is one thing i'll never forget. superdome, convention center , just the general struggle of everything we had to go through to get people out.

    >> michael ?

    >> as the urban search and rescue teams were going through during their searches, they were giving me live feedbacks and i got a live feedback from a nursing home that had victims, deceased elderly on the floor in their diapers, deceased on the floor of this nursing home . it was youawful.

    >> this was a slow motion storm that strengthened over the weekend. we knew it was coming. you knew it was coming. when this storm approached landfall here in louisiana, did you think you were ready it at the city level, and did you think you were ready at the federal level ?

    >> well, we thought we had done a pretty good job of evacuation. normally we get about 60% to 70% of our citizens out. this time we had at least 80% to 85% out. that was our initial estimate. it wasn't until i got a call from max late saturday night --

    >> at the hurricane center .

    >> -- that we really knew this storm was heading for us. that's when i decided to order a mandatory evacuation, the first one ever, to get as many other people out as possible.

    >> michael , did you think the federal government was worried?

    >> no. in fact, i was worried about it. you may have seen me during the briefings in which i was concerned about the superdome. i was concerned about the evacuation. i was concerned about all of those things plus the placement of fema and dhs, i was afraid there had been a severing of the relationship.

    >> did you voice those concerns to mayor nagin and those at the state level?

    >> at that point it's too late. we're in the middle of the crisis at that point.

    >> would you have liked to have heard those concerns earlier?

    >> well, yes, but, you know, mr. brown, i think, was in the state at that time. we were hunkered down in new orleans trying to get ready for the storm .

    >> you talk about the evacuation, mayor nagin, you ordered. 20 hours before the storm hit, let's get everybody out of here. what we learned there were so many people who simply didn't have a place to go and didn't have the means to get out.

    >> well, keep in mind our evacuation process had a shelter of last resort, the superdome. we opened that up. we went into the communities to get people out, as many as possible. but the storm hadn't hit new orleans like that in about 40 years. so our culture is one of stay and ride it out. many people decided to stay in their homes.

    >> one of the things so frustrating, michael , we seem to be hearing two different stories or hearing one story and seeing another. representatives of the federal government were telling us this is going fairly well, this is going as planned. we're happy with this. i hate to bring it up, right up to that heck of a job, devastation and despair, no food and no water. why was there this disconnect?

    >> i think there was a disconnect because of the mentality in washington that says you put the best face on everything. i think politicians and government leaders need to understand the american public wants accurate information.

    >> so when you were saying some of the things you were saying to the immediamedia here and across the country, did you know it was inaccurate?

    >> not that it was inaccurate. it was factually correct in what we were telling people about what was going on, but we never put it in context about we're doing all of these things, but it's not enough or it's not working. and i think it's a huge failure of government to fail, to trust the american people with the actual facts of what's happening.

    >> i think, ray, one of the things that was uncovered by hurricane katrina as the waters came in and then moved away was this devastating poverty that a lot of people in this country either didn't know existed or didn't want to know existed. did that strike you?

    >> i think just the latter. most people know that there's poverty in america and it's concentrated in urban cities. that's what we deal with in new orleans on a regular basis. and, as a matter of fact, most of the people who stayed and didn't leave is because they either wouldn't leave or couldn't leave is because of the poverty issue.

    >> most important question i can ask both of you, what lessons were learned, are you convinced that enough has been said about katrina and it has been dissected enough and analyzed enough, the response to it, that if another katrina -like event were to strike new orleans or some other city, that the response would be more efficient and handled differently?

    >> i'm not convinced. maybe mr. brown is convinced. i don't see any major changes that we have done as a country. the fema has new people but it still operates pretty much the same. we have updated all of our evacuation processes.

    >> that's a horrible phrase.

    >> i am very concerned. the bp situation taught me something that we're not quite ready. the haiti situation, which is international, also said a lot about us.

    >> quickly, michael ?

    >> people find this shocking but i agree with the mayor. the studies have not truly been addressed and i think the second thing is the american population hasn't realized what their responsibility is in the midst of a crisis. a major -- look, we have a levee problem in california.

    >> do you think the new levees will hold if we have another major storm here? it.

    >> we spent $14 billion so i hope so. it looks better but it's been tested once with gustav. we'll see in the future.

    >> i appreciate you getting back together and looking back with us and hopefully looking forward . ray nagin and michael brown .

Image: New Orleans
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
A man and child on Sunday walk past a blighted home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina five years after the storm.
TODAY staff and wire
updated 8/27/2010 9:09:28 AM ET 2010-08-27T13:09:28

Five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the federal official at the heart of a firestorm over Washington's slow response is acknowledging the government’s shortcomings.

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Mike Brown told Matt Lauer on TODAY “there was a disconnect” between what the Bush administration was saying about the situation and how bad things actually were.

Brown — who was famously praised by President George W. Bush for his handling of the crisis (“Heck of a job, Brownie”) but then became an icon of FEMA’s failings — said the government was wrong to try to make the situation appear less dire than it was.

“There was a mentality in Washington which says you put the best face on everything,” Brown told Lauer. He said information given out by the administration was accurate, but “we never put it in context” with how much still needed to be done to lift the stricken city.

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“Spin. I think political and government leaders need to know that the American public wants accurate information,” said Brown, speaking from New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. “I think it’s a huge failure of government to fail to trust the American people with the actual facts of what’s going on.”

Brown was joined in the interview by Ray Nagin, New Orleans’ mayor at the time, who said the city did what it could to urge all citizens to evacuate, and it wasn’t until 20 hours before the storm hit that he realized he had to order a mandatory evacuation. Even then, some didn’t leave.

“A storm [of that size] had not hit New Orleans in like 40 years, so our culture was ‘stay and ride it out,’ ” Nagin said.

Asked by Lauer if the government’s response would be different if a similar disaster struck an American city today, Nagin said: “I’m not convinced ... I don’t see any major changes that we have done as a country. FEMA has new people, but it still operates pretty much the same.”

“I am very concerned,” Nagin added. “The BP situation taught me that we’re not quite ready. The Haiti situation, which is international, also said a lot about us.”

“People [may] find this shocking, but I agree with the mayor,” Brown said. “The studies have not truly been addressed. And I think the second thing is, the American population hasn’t realized what their responsibility is in the midst of a crisis.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Timeline: Hurricane Katrina five years later

Photos: Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast

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  1. Hurricane Katrina is seen in the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 28, 2005. Katrina roared shore the next day packing sustained winds of 125 mph and was one of the strongest storms to hit the coast of the United States in the last 100 years. Katrina caused widespread devastation along the central Gulf Coast states. Cities such as New Orleans, La., Mobile, Ala., and Gulfport, Miss., were especially hit hard. (NOAA / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Arnold James of New Orleans tries to stay on his feet as a strong gust nearly blows him over on Aug. 29, 2005, when Katrina made landfall. The roof on James' home blew off, forcing him to make his way to the Louisiana Superdome for shelter. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Rescuers save a family from the roof of their vehicle, which was trapped by floodwaters on U.S. 90 on Aug. 29, 2005, in Bay St. Louis, Miss. (Ben Sklar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The Hyatt hotel in New Orleans saw most of its glass blown out as Katrina blew in on Aug. 29, 2005. (Charley Varley / Sipa Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Floodwaters pour through a levee along Inner Harbor Navigaional Canal near downtown New Orleans on Aug. 30, 2005, a day after Katrina passed through the city. (Vincent LaForet / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Looters make their way into a grocery store in New Orleans on Aug. 30, 2005. Flood waters continued to rise in New Orleans after Katrina did extensive damage. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A woman walks through floodwaters coated with a layer of oil in downtown New Orleans on Aug. 30, 2005. (Bill Haber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Evelyn Turner cries alongside the body of her common-law husband, Xavier Bowie, after he died in New Orleans, on Aug. 30, 2005. Bowie and Turner had decided to ride out Katrina when they could not find a way to leave the city. Bowie, who had lung cancer, died when he ran out of oxygen. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Vehicles damaged by Katrina floodwaters sit in mud on Aug. 30, 2005, in Slidell, La. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. President George W. Bush looks out the window of Air Force One as it flies over New Orleans to survey the damage left by Katrina on Aug. 31, 2005. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Residents wait on a rooftop to be rescued in New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005. Authorities briefly suspended an evacuation of New Orleans after a reported shooting at a U.S. military helicopter. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Residents are rescued by helicopter on Sept. 1, 2005, in New Orleans. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tam Cu, Jason Jackson and Linda Bryant look for belongings from Bryant's home on Aug. 31, 2005, in Biloxi, Miss. (Barbara Davidson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The body of a victim of Hurricane Katrina floats in floodwaters in New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005. (James Nielsen / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Flood victims pile into a truck as hundreds of others wait at the Convention Center in New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005, in order to be evacuated. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A military helicopter makes a food and water drop to flood victims near the Convention Center in New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Terri Jones tries to cool fellow flood victim Dorthy Divic, 89, who was overheated and exhausted at the Convention Center in New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. National Guard soldiers assist stranded victims outside the New Orleans Convention Center on Sept. 2, 2005. Thousands of troops poured into the city that day to help with security and delivery of supplies. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A makeshift tomb at a New Orleans street corner on Sept. 4, 2005, conceals a body that had been lying on the sidewalk for days in the wake of Katrina. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Homes remain flooded to the roof on Sept. 5, 2005, in St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A military helicopter drops a sandbag as work continues to repair the 17th Street canal levee in New Orleans on Sept. 5, 2005. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Robert Fontaine makes his way through New Orleans' 7th Ward on Sept. 6, 2005, as a home burns down. Fontaine stayed in the Columbus Street house during the flooding to care for some dogs that were left behind. He was using candles for light, due to the lack of electricity, but one of the dogs knocked over a candle, causing the fire. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Thousands of evacuees take shelter inside the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 5, 2005. (Jim MacMillan / Philadelphia Daily News via Abaca) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Search and rescue personnel go house to house in New Orleans on Sept. 7, 2005. (David J. Phillip / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Chicago-area firefighter John Swanson walks past a car in Meraux, La., on Sept. 15, 2005. Firefighters had to check approximately 20,000 evacuated homes in St. Bernard parish for survivors or bodies before residents were allowed back. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Two 160-foot fishing vessels straddle all four lanes of Highway 23 in Empire, La., on Sept. 12, 2005, after being pushed ashore by Katrina. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A statue of the Virgin Mary on the lawn of a New Orleans home peeks out from floodwaters on Sept. 10, 2005. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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