Brownie: FEMA Cannot Succeed

Today’s “Cities at Risk” conference, organized by Milano, The New School for Management and Urban Policy, could not have been planned more appropriately. Yesterday, President Bush named R. David Paulison to replace former FEMA director Michael Brown.

Held in the Tishman Auditorium, Mr. Brown joined James Lee Witt, (FEMA Director under President Clinton), Bob Kerrey (New School President and former Nebraska Senator) Clark Kent Ervin (formerly of the Department of Homeland Security), and Martin O’Malley (Baltimore mayor and gubernatorial candidate) for a panel on “Planning for Disaster: The Benefit of Hindsight.”

(Senator Schumer, who was scheduled to provide opening remarks, and Senator Clinton, who was rumored to appear, both had to be in Washington).

Moderator Brian Lehrer started things off by asking about the president’s recent appointment.

“Dave Paulison is an exceptionally good person,” said Mr. Witt. “But the position they have put him in–searching all over the world to find someone to take that position–has weakened that position. If I had been Mr. Paulison, I would have told them to take it, and put it somewhere else.”

“He’s in a position that will put him in a position of failure,” continued Mr. Witt. “Unless they pull FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security, put it back as an independent agency, then he’s asking for failure.”

Mr. Brown, who has currently been making the rounds to improve his public persona–with appearances on The Colbert Report and Inside City Hall, shared Mr. Witt’s frustration with the agency.

“Dave is a very smart guy,” said Mr. Brown. Then an audience member, from within the overflowing crowd packed into the Tishman Auditorium, momentarily cut him off, shouting, “Helluva job, Brownie.”

But he continued with his pessimistic view.

“The current structure of FEMA is not going to allow anyone to succeed,” said Mr. Brown.

Later, Mr. Brown claimed that he had warned the Department of Homeland Security that FEMA’s budget was “tinkering on disaster.” Also, he maintains that he foresaw New Orleans as “the perfect scenario of how everything could go wrong.”

“I just didn’t want it to occur on my watch,” he added.

And what advice does he have for New School students in attendance?

“It’s wonderful being both the scapegoat and the fall guy,” said Mr. Brown jokingly. “It’s a wonderful path for you who want to go into public service.”

(You can listen to the discussion here.)

- Michael Calderone