Michael Brown, the disgraced former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, expressed great skepticism Friday with NBC News anchor Brian Williams’ 2006 claim that he saw a body float through New Orleans’ French Quarter during his coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Williams’ credibility came into major question this week after he issued a public apology for erroneously claiming that he survived a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his helicopter while covering the Iraq War in 2003.
“When you look out of your hotel room window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh in Indonesia [after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami] and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country,” Williams said during a 2006 interview with Michael Eisner, former chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company. “I beat that storm. I was there before it arrived. I rode it out with people who later died in the Superdome.”
Brown, who led the federal government’s universally condemned post-Katrina aid efforts in New Orleans, said the French Quarter experienced mere “street flooding” after the hurricane that was “not even comparable” to that experienced in other parts of the city, such as the devastated Ninth Ward. “We’re talking about inches of water compared to feet of water,” Brown, who now hosts "The Michael Brown Show" on Denver's 630-KHOW, told International Business Times. “That’s not the kind of flooding that was the problem in New Orleans, which is where we’re talking about breaches of levies, we’re talking about 6 feet, 8 feet, 10 feet of water. So for Brian Williams to smugly talk about looking out his French Quarter window and watching a body float by? I call B.S."
The French Quarter tourist mecca, which stands on higher ground than the rest of New Orleans, largely avoided the heavy flooding that plagued the city, according to multiple reports. Firsthand accounts of the neighborhood’s state after the storm disputed the notion that a body could float down a street. “We were never wet. It was never wet,” Dr. Brobson Lutz, a former New Orleans city health director who was in the Quarter during Katrina, told the New Orleans Advocate.
Brown stopped short of accusing Williams of outright fabrication of the story, but intimated it was highly unlikely that a body could have floated down a street in the French Quarter. “I would never say there’s no chance, [but] envision this for a second. You are sitting in the French Quarter. You’re not in the Ninth Ward, you’re not in the poor parts of the city, you’re not in the areas that were flooded where people had hundreds of thousands of dollars in value in homes next to a levy, where the water is in the third and fourth floors of the homes. You’re sitting in your robe, in a French Quarter hotel, looking out your window and claiming you see a body float by? Give me an effing break,” Brown said.
Williams further claimed in 2014 interview with Tom Brokaw that he contracted dysentery during Hurricane Katrina after he accidentally ingested contaminated floodwater. “My week, two weeks there was not helped by the fact that I accidentally ingested some of the floodwater,” Williams said. “I became very sick with dysentery, our hotel was overrun with gangs, I was rescued in the stairwell of a five-star hotel in New Orleans by a young police officer. We are friends to this day. I look back at total agony. We were experiencing the least of it.”
Brown disputed the notion that dysentery was active in New Orleans after the hurricane and questioned how Williams could have completed a news broadcast while racked with the debilitating ailment. Brown’s statement echoed a similar sentiment expressed by Lutz, who told the Advocate he could not “recall a single, solitary case of gastroenteritis” during or after the storm.
“I’ve never heard, never heard, of dysentery in Hurricane Katrina, anywhere. Biloxi [Mississippi] all the way to the Texas border, I never heard of one case of dysentery,” Brown said. “If you truly have dysentery, you’re not standing up in front of a camera, in front of national news people, giving a report and then going back and sitting on the commode or hunched in your bed for the next five hours and then get up and do it again. If you truly have dysentery, you’re down and out.”
Brown became the face of FEMA’s failure to provide adequate relief to New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina. He wrote "can I quit now?" in an email to Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of public affairs, the morning the storm made landfall, according to CNN.
FEMA lacked the necessary shipments of water and other supplies to support the thousands of citizens affected by Katrina. Brown struggled to unify the agency's efforts at relief and to coordinate with local authorities and the U.S. National Guard. At one point, he asked the White House to assume control of the situation, according to a 2005 New York Times report.
Brown blamed the delayed response to the storm on then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's failure to announce mandatory evacuation of the city until it was too late. He further claimed he "absolutely misspoke" when he said on live television on Sept. 1, 2005, that he learned late that refugees at New Orleans' convention center lacked food and water.
President George W. Bush, who appointed Brown to the organization’s top post in 2003, infamously gave his charge a vote of confidence despite widespread calls for his resignation. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush said at the time. Brown resigned 10 days later.
FEMA has described Katrina as “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.” The storm directly or indirectly caused the deaths of nearly 2,000 people and did an estimated $108 billion worth of damage, according to CNN.