Had I left the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the spring of 2005, my life would be very different today. And I really wish, in retrospect, that I had. But after the 2004 hurricane season, when FEMA’s excellent responses to hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in Florida were widely praised, White House chief of staff Andy Card persuaded me to stay on as director through the 2005 hurricane season. I didn’t want to disappoint President George W. Bush. We’d developed a good relationship. Heck, he even gave me my own nickname: “Brownie.”
By the end of the summer, it was a nickname the whole world would know. I, in turn, would have learned many lessons in how Washington fails—and how it assigns blame. People are still saying now, as they said then, that what went wrong in New Orleans a decade ago was all my fault. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. There were many dark moments in those three weeks on the Gulf Coast, and FEMA and the federal government certainly made some mistakes, but perhaps the worst part was being held responsible for the things that I didn’t control at all.