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.”
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