President, Governor, Mayor Admit Bungled Hurricane Response

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana, September 15, 2005 (ENS) - Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco took responsibility Wednesday for the slow and flawed response to Hurricane Katrina that cost hundreds of people their lives as flood waters rose in New Orleans in the wake of the storm. Yesterday, the death count rose to 708 overall, and in Louisiana it is up to 474.

In a state of the state address to a special meeting of the Louisiana Legislature, Governor Blanco said, "We all know that there were failures at every level of government: state, federal and local. At the state level, we must take a careful look at what went wrong and make sure it never happens again. The buck stops here … and, as your governor, I take full responsibility."

"The destruction is almost beyond comprehension," the governor said. "We have lost hundreds of our loved ones. Entire communities have been destroyed. Businesses, wiped off the map. Families separated. More than a million people displaced from their homes."

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Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco says Louisiana will rebuild. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Thanking all of the rescue workers who came to Louisiana from across the country, and everyone who has been generous to survivors, Governor Blanco pledged to rebuild. "Bluntly put, New Orleans and the surrounding parishes may be ravaged but our spirit remains intact. To anyone who even suggests that this great city should not be rebuilt, hear this and hear it well - we will rebuild," she said.

We will drain the water from our neighborhoods, clean up the debris and contamination, rebuild our levees, roads and bridges, and recreate our communities," said the governor, who has asked the federal government to cover 100 percent of what Louisiana will spend on this disaster, "just as was done after 9/11," she said.

"I want the people of Louisiana to know that we have a friend and a partner in President George W. Bush. I thank you, Mr. President, and I thank the Congress for your initial investment in our immediate recovery and relief. We can not rebuild without you."

At the White House, President George W. Bush admitted Tuesday that on the federal level, he is to blame for the debacle that left hurricane victims stranded for days without food, water or adequate security, and with no way to leave the flooded city.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government," President Bush said. "And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

Bush

President George W. Bush meets reporters at the White House Tuesday. (Photo by Shealah Craighead courtesy The White House)
Meeting reporters with President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, Bush said he views as important the question of U.S. readiness to respond to a another hurricane or another terrorist attack.

"I want to know what went right and what went wrong. I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question that you asked: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm. And that's a very important question. And it's in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on and - so that we can better respond," the President said.

Commending the "Coast Guard kids" who rescued storm victims from rooftops, the President said, "I'm not going to defend the process going in, but I am going to defend the people who are on the front line of saving lives."

President Bush will address the nation tonight from New Orleans.

And New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin took a share of the blame on his own shoulders Wednesday night. Speaking from Baton Rouge on the Larry King Live show on CNN, the mayor said, "If I have anything that I feel responsible for it's the fact that, you know, we could have maybe screamed a little bit earlier. Hopefully, we could have gotten some more people to safety."

Mayor Nagin said he appreciated the comments made by Governor Blanco taking responsibility for the state's failures in the crisis, but said the resignation Monday of FEMA Director Michael Brown over his handling of the disaster was not a critical turning point.

"Everyone thinks that there's one or two people to blame for this, for the struggles that we've had," he said. "This is a much bigger process than any one or two people, a much bigger problem." The mayor called it "a process challenge."

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President George W. Bush shakes hands with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, September 2, 2005. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)
"It's about legal, regulatory and a system problem and what's set up today is not modern enough to deal with crisis of this magnitude," he said.

The biggest mistake he made, said the mayor, was the day Katrina hit in a location to the east of New Orleans, he and others signaled to the world that the city was alright. But then the hurricane levees were breached in several places, flooding 80 percent of the city.

"That was probably the biggest mistake that we set that signal out to the world that we were okay. And then the levee broke and then, you know, the rest is history. And so I think that was one of the biggest mistakes that were made."

Mayor Nagin also blamed others for their slow response, saying that the race and the class of the victims and evacuees equaled lack of respect.

"Katrina was an awesome storm from the standpoint it made the country look at some things that we probably don't like looking at," Nagin said. "The face of the people that were suffering for the most part were African American. They were poor."

"As we were going through the crisis, my initial take on this was that it was more class issue because, you know, poor people really don't have a lot of power. So, if this had happened in another part of California or New York or Miami or something, somewhere like this, most likely it would have been a different response. And that's the hard cold facts around this," said Nagin, who is black.

"I just had some awful experiences that really suggested to me that race was a part of the dynamics going on," he said.

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Evacuees at the New Orleans Convention Center (Photo by Liz Roll courtesy FEMA)
"We had some people that were trying to go into another section of the metropolitan area, another parish, an adjourning parish, and basically, they were met with attack dogs and guards and, you know, and then another example, people were so frustrated in the convention center that they wanted to walk across the Crescent City connection to go meet the buses, they didn't want to stay in filth and the stuff happening there and they were turned around again. And, that just did not sit very well with me," Mayor Nagin said.

Search and recovery crews are still going door to door in New Orleans searching for the bodies of the dead, and officials expect the death toll to rise in the next several days.

Mayor Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order on August 28, the day before Katrina made landfall. About 80 percent of New Orleans residents left the city, but about 10,000 people are still there despite the contaminated floodwaters and another other from the mayor that they would be removed by force if they did not leave.

But force was not used, and now Mayor Nagin says he is getting ready to repopulate the city with a plan he will annouce today. "I'm going to announce a phased repopulation plan that is going to deal with some of the areas that were least hit by the hurricane and had less water. And then within the next week or two we should have about 180,000 people back in the city of New Orleans," the mayor said.

"We've been clearing out the city so that when people come back the electricity is back on, they have sewer. We have water," Nagin said. "Water quality on the east bank is not where we need it to be but it's good enough for people to come back."

"I'm going to have some temporary retail establishments up. We've established two hospitals in the city that are going to be up. So," the mayor said, "once they come back, we'll have the critical services for them to at least live a semi-normal life."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ unwatering operation is pumping more than nine billion gallons a day out of Orleans, East Orleans and St. Bernard parishes.

Unwatering Task Force Commander, Colonel Duane Gapinski, said the Corps was steadily progressing and observers are now seeing a continual drop in water levels. In the 17th Street Bridge area, watermarks on homes show evidence of at least a six-foot drop in water levels.

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Mud and debris is left in the wake of the retreating floodwaters near the 17th St. Canal breach, while a distinct water line is evident on several of the remaining buildings. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
“We’re still looking at completing the unwatering mission in a little over a month, but we can see the end of the road," he said. The Corps originally said it could take up to 80 days for the water to be removed from the city.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a public advisory warning of potential environmental health hazards when returning to homes and businesses after Hurricane Katrina.

To date, the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard have jointly received 396 notifications from the National Response Center (NRC) of potential oil and hazardous substance releases. The NRC has a searchable database to look up reports by city, state, and date. The website is: www.nrc.uscg.mil.

Louisiana reported the most spills, 332, and there have been five major oil spills in the New Orleans area to date. Alabama reported had 36 hazardous substance discharges and Mississippi had only 28.

The EPA is sending out assessment teams and performing overflights of the stricken area. More than 282 emergency responses for hazardous materials releases have been conducted by EPA and Coast Guard.

The EPA is continuing to assess damage to local drinking water systems in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana is and providing technical assistance to help restore service. Most services are still under a

Many systems were disabled or impaired by loss of electrical power, and some are now operating under boiled water notices. In Louisiana, EPA teams have conducted 28 drinking water assessments and provided technical assistance at 14 public water systems.

The EPA says in southeastern Louisiana, 281 water systems are either under a boil water advisory, are not operating, or are awaiting further information. There are 391 such systems in Mississippi. EPA has two mobile laboratories in Mississippi and two in Louisiana

EPA teams continue collection of household hazardous wastes and orphan containers. EPA has recovered more than 4000 orphan containers, including four chlorine tanks. In addition, EPA personnel continue to offer technical assistance in the disposal of hazardous waste and other debris left behind by the storm.

Electricity is also being restored to the city. The Entergy’s workforce, with help from outside crews from across the country, has restored electrical service to more than 836,000 of the 1.1 million customers affected by Hurricane Katrina. At 5:00 pm Wednesday, more than 255,000 customers were still without power.

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Damage to the electrical system in Louisiana was severe. (Photo courtesy Entergy)
Entergy is concentrating its resources into the most heavily damaged areas of Louisiana including Jefferson Parish and accessible areas of Orleans Parish.

A significant portion of New Orleans is flooded and substations will take extended time - months - to restore, Entergy said. Those substations that are not flooded had widespread damage.

The power company has reenergized six substations within the city and restored distribution on a very limited basis, but there is a lot of work remaining outside the city to complete first, the company says.

The work crews are moving from outlying, minimally affected areas into more heavily damaged areas. Locations that have been evacuated will be addressed after these others, the company said.

Entergy Gas Operations has completed assessment in New Orleans Uptown, the Central Business District, the French Quarter and a section of the Ninth Ward west of the Industrial Canal. The natural gas system in Algiers is completely restored.

Much of the French Quarter has gas service, but because of water seepage into the low-pressure system that serves this area, complete restoration will take longer than the company had hoped.

Entergy has contracted with diving specialists to isolate some known underwater gas leaks. Some of these leaks have been secured. There are many boats and vehicles conducting rescue emergency services in New Orleans. Entergy asks military personnel, police, and all emergency workers to help by reporting natural gas leaks. Anyone who smells gas or see bubbles coming up in flooded area should contact us at 1 800-ENTERGY (1 800 368-3749) and report the location of the suspected leak.

Entergy has 17 generating units in the New Orleans area that are fueled by natural gas and/or oil. Nine of those units have been returned to service, with one more expected to return late this week. Currently, generation capacity is sufficient to meet load, and our fuel supplies are adequate, the company said.

All Entergy Mississippi customers who can take power were restored as of Sunday morning.