The former FEMA chief who became the face of the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina is out of the public sector now — but he’s not always out of trouble.
In the 10 years since his resignation following the storm and its chaotic aftermath, Michael Brown has become an author, a consultant, and a radio talk-show host. Throughout it all, whenever an opportunity to voice an honest opinion has presented itself — even if that opinion ruffles feathers — he’s taken it.
Brown was infamously praised during a tour of storm-ravaged Louisiana in 2005 by President George W. Bush, who jovially told him as cameras rolled, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Survivors, thousands of whom had no food or water while taking shelter in New Orleans’ Superdome, disagreed.
Ten days later, “Brownie” quit his post as head of the federal disaster relief agency. But the public shaming hasn’t made him shy away from sensitive topics: He’s lambasted President Obama and the director of the CDC, among others, and and he’s even brought up that very Superdome again in incendiary tweets.
Now living in Denver, the 60-year-old Brown hosts a daily show on 630 KHOW, his city’s radio station that is also home to shows by Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and other fiery conservative figures.
A lawyer by trade, Brown isn’t afraid of inciting controversy. That happens often during his three hours of airtime on “The Michael Brown Show,” which is broadcast on two radio stations in Colorado and attracts listeners nationwide through its online app.
“It’s not your typical conservative talk radio. I am an equal opportunity basher,” he told NBC News on Wednesday. “I try to get people to re-think things, and they’re often shocked by my positions, because I’m just as critical of Republicans as I am of Democrats.”
In a recent episode, Brown lamented the fact that the killing of Cecil the lion by a “dirtbag dentist” was getting more media attention than a video that purported to show a baby aborted by Planned Parenthood that was sold for research.
“We are outraged at the killing of Cecil the lion,” Brown told listeners on July 28, “[But] nobody seems to care about the little feet or the little fingers or the heart or the liver in the petri dish.”
Friends tell him listening to his show reminds them of a conversation they would have with him over dinner.
“I just want to tell people this is my take on stuff, and here’s why I have this take based on my life experience. And I’ve had amazing life experiences, both good and bad,” Brown told NBC News.
The bad experiences, including being widely regarded as the scapegoat for the government’s lack of preparedness for Katrina’s arrival on the Gulf Coast, don’t hold him back.
Three years ago, as Sandy was brewing in the Atlantic, Brown criticized Obama for calling a news conference so early.
“The storm was still forming, people were debating whether it was going to be as bad as expected or not, and I noted that the president should have let the governors and mayors deal with the storm until it got closer to hitting the coastal areas,” he told Politico at the time.
Current FEMA director Craig Fugate quickly dismissed his predecessor’s criticism: “Better to be fast than to be late,” he said, a pointed barb at Brown’s Katrina response.
In 2010, during the Deepwater Horizon crisis, he claimed the Obama administration “played politics” with the oil spill.
“This is exactly what they want because now he can pander to the environmentalists and say I’m going to shut it down because it’s too dangerous,” he told FOX News in October 2010. “While Mexico and China and everybody else drills in the Gulf, we’re going to get shut down.”
Centers for Disease and Control Prevention Director Thomas Frieden was another Brown target. Last October, during the Ebola crisis, Brown called for Frieden to step down.
And even the very Superdome where the perceived failures of his reign played out after Katrina isn’t immune to criticism: In 2013, when a black-out shut off the lights of the Super Bowl in New Orleans, Brown hit a nerve when he tweeted, “Someone just told me there was fighting going on in the NOLA Superdome. #shocked.”
His Twitter feed regularly features pro-life commentary and musings on current events. During the Aurora movie theater trial, he posted, “On days like this I feel a particular sadness for parents of a convicted murderer. They’re victims, too, but ignored.”
Asked whether he actively seeks out controversy, Brown told NBC News, “I think the controversy finds me.”
Brown doesn’t see his tenure at FEMA, including during Katrina, as all bad. He describes it in detail in his 2011 book, “Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm: Hurricane Katrina, The Bush White House, and Beyond,” and said Wednesday that Katrina served as a reminder that the federal government need to allocate funding to disasters of all kinds, not just terrorism.
“We had witnessed, with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, this shift from an all-hazards approach to disasters to ‘Everything is terrorism.’ There was a shift of grant money, there was a shift of funding, a shift of focus,” he said. “The focus on terrorism made people forget Mother Nature does things all the time and if we start getting the mindset that we have to spend grant money only to respond to terrorism, that starts to weaken state and local governments. They woke up to that after Katrina.”
A decade after the storm, there’s one thing that endures for him: People still call him by that nickname, Brownie.
“It drives me nuts. My friends do. People that hate me do. Lots of people do,” he said. “I’ve just learned to ignore it.”