Live blogging Michael ‘Heckuva Job’ Brown

Michael Brown is speaking on resilience here at RUSI – it’s the first time he’s spoken outside the US about the Katrina debacle.

From his conference biog, “During Mr Brown’s tenure, he led FEMA through its greatest period of activity in its 26 year history.” It’s the only mention of his ignominious firing… 

  • He starts with war stories about Oklahoma, 9/11, 7/7 etc. Tough to communicate under pressure – as responders suck up bandwidth, resources aren’t where they need to be, and lines of communication are not clear.
  • He spent days thumbing through the Pitt Review – “amazed and fascinated”. Problems are all identified. “I challenge you not just in the UK, but in the rest of the EU, but not just to study it, but to implement it.”
  • Heard about technology, processes, standards etc – but he’s heard no discussion of citizens and media. “If you don’t think citizens and media are involved in every single disaster, I don’t know what you’re smoking.”
  • Media will make or break your response to your disaster. If they understand what is going on, they will deliberately undermine the rescue attempt. Media must therefore be educated beforehand. “If media are not an integral part of resilience, you have no resilience.”
  • Talks about his personal resilience. Response was not good. Family told him to turn his television off – to avoid the publicity, as we the butt of all jokes.
  • Could not convince Mayor of New Orleans to do a mandatory evacuation (had to be done 72 hours in advance), even after call from President.
  • Role of citizens is vital. What do you do when you have citizens who can’t or won’t evacuate? If you fail to educate people about risk, then a response becomes hugely more difficult.
  • It is possible to educate the public about risks – but at the moment too many people believe they can use their cell phones, cash cards, microwaves when it all goes wrong.
  • Tells story of expert assessors taking fire extinguishers out of the Avon Building (in the UK I think), because residents were not trained to use them. Derides stripping out individual initiative.
  • ‘Lesson observed’ from Katrina: explain the risk better to citizens and then make sure people can get out. 
  • But that’s not the same as a ‘lesson learned’. For Ike, the message was “if you do not leave, you suffer certain death.” What does that do for the credibility of first responders? And, in case, over 15,000 people ignored the warning, and only 15 people died. “We’ve been through worse.” “The government always lies to us.”
  • He describes himself as ‘the guy who the media dragged through the mud, and now puts on a pedestal.” Is that right?
  • Urges the audience to become personal ambassadors for resilience out in their communities.  “Be passionate… convince the media and the citizens that they have a role to play too.”
  • And that’s it. Questions off the record unfortunately.

Update: It’s hard to sum up Michael Brown’s performance. He’s an oddly compelling speaker, and interesting when he speaks about the role of the media and the responsibilities of citizens in a disaster.

But his main purpose in coming to the UK seems to be to speak in defence of Michael Brown – a man he claims was victimised by the media, but is now placed on a ‘pedestal’ for his disaster management expertise.

Listening to ‘Heckuva Job’, you’d think that Katrina had only one victim: the man who Bush backed and then sacked – and who became emblematic of Republican incompetence.