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Ex-chief says FEMA readiness even worse

WASHINGTON -- Michael Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the disaster-response agency's level of preparedness is lower than last August, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

Even if FEMA's personnel and financial needs were met today, it still ''would take them a year" of training before any improvement in the agency would be seen, Brown said in an interview yesterday in Washington.

Brown said part of the problem is that FEMA officials can't get political backing for reforms.

''People at FEMA are scared to make decisions because who's going to support them and back them up on some of these hard decisions that need to be made?" Brown said.

Brown resigned from FEMA Sept. 12 following criticism of the government's response to Katrina, which swept ashore Aug. 29 and ravaged parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana and killed more than 1,300 people. No permanent replacement for Brown has been named.

US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters last month that he's ''very concerned" that the Gulf Coast will be vulnerable when hurricane season begins June 1. A Bush administration report last month recommended 125 changes to ensure readiness, concluding that the catastrophe was magnified by a lack of government expertise.

The Bush administration to date has sought $105 billion for repairs and reconstruction in the region, making it the costliest natural disaster in US history.

Brown said state and local government officials in Louisiana deserve the lion's share of the blame for the botched emergency response. He faults New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco for 70 percent of the problems.

''If they had done a true mandatory evacuation," Brown said, ''We probably wouldn't have had the civil unrest."

Blanco has denied Brown's allegations, saying his testimony before Congress about the disaster was filled with ''falsehoods and misleading statements." Nagin has also denied Brown's allegations.

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