Katrina missteps

Battle of the Gulf Gaffe: Tony Hayward vs. Michael Brown

Two of the most loathed officials to ever visit the Gulf battle it out—in their own words.

Hayward vs. Brown: Both grumbled, fumbled, and grossly misspoke their way through two of the worst environmental disasters in American history--but there can be only one King of the Gulf Gaffe. Images: Bill Koplitz/FEMA and World Economic Forum

Inhabitants of the Gulf coast have endured some of the most catastrophic tragedies in recent history. Exacerbating those tragedies was the spectacularly poor leadership of two men: BP’s bumbling CEO Tony Hayward, and the deposed head of FEMA, Michael Brown (the former of oil spill infamy, and the latter widely detested for his bungled response to Hurricane Katrina). Since there can be only one King of the Gulf Gaffe, we pitted the two against each another in a five-round battle royale using their own quotes as ammunition.

May the worst-spoken win.

Round 1: Understatements

“I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.” –Tony Hayward, May 18, 2010

“I actually think the security is pretty darn good. There’s some really bad people out there that are causing some problems, and it seems to me that every time a bad person wants to scream or cause a problem, there’s somebody there with a camera to stick it in their face.” –Michael Brown, Sept. 2, 2005

The FEMA boss’ misguided take on the degree of lawlessness seems modest in comparison with Hayward’s dismissal of more than 172 million gallons of crude oil dumped into one of our greatest natural resources.

Point: Hayward

Round 2: Thick-Headedness

“I am sure they were genuinely ill, but whether it was anything to do with dispersants and oil, whether it was food poisoning or some other reason for them being ill, you know, there’s a—food poisoning is surely a big issue when you’ve got a concentration of this number of people in temporary camps, temporary accommodations.” –Tony Hayward, May 29, 2010

“I’ve had no reports of unrest, if the connotation of the word ‘unrest’ means that people are beginning to riot or, you know, they’re banging on walls and screaming and hollering or burning tires or whatever. I’ve had no reports of that.” –Michael Brown, in response to security issues, Sept. 1, 2005

Hayward is clearly reaching as he blames oil-related illnesses on bad food, but Brown’s utter cluelessness to the situation around him takes the cake.

Point: Brown

Round 3: Inconvenience

“We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” –Tony Hayward, May 30, 2010

“I’m trapped now, please rescue me.” –Michael Brown, in an email to an acquaintance, Sept. 2, 2005

It seems like the real tragedy for our combatants was the inconvenience the disasters caused them. But while Brown restricted his woes to personal email, Hayward wanted the world to know he was only looking out for No. 1. On sheer audacity, Hayward takes the round.

Point: Hayward

Round 4: Miscalculation

“The oil is on the surface. There aren’t any plumes.” – Tony Hayward, May 30, 2010

“Considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well.” –Michael Brown, Sept. 1, 2005

We can almost forgive the CEO for having no concept of fluid dynamics. But Brown’s outlandish attempt to temper expectations shows a whole new level of shamelessness.

Point: Brown

Round 5: Adversity

“I’m a Brit, I can take it.” –Tony Hayward, June 4, 2010

“I’m going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife, and maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night’s sleep.” –Michael Brown, Sept. 9, 2005

Both officials found themselves the target of intense criticism and both eventually were dismissed unceremoniously. But their reactions were truly telling. Hayward takes an almost triumphant stance against the torrents of bad press. But Brown chose, instead, to wallow away his sorrows with a pillow and Mexican spirits. That bold move gives Brown the point, and the dubious title of King of the Gulf Gaffe.

Point: Brown