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La. officials criticized at House hearing

GOP legislators say residents weren't evacuated in time

WASHINGTON -- The mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana, who had come to Capitol Hill yesterday to plead for more federal hurricane aid, faced Republican accusations that they had endangered lives by failing to force residents to evacuate days before the landfall of Hurricane Katrina.

The intense daylong hearing of a select House investigative committee marked an escalation of the politically-charged battle over who was responsible for the deaths of more than 1,100 Louisiana residents after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, trapping thousands of people in homes, apartments, and hospitals when walls of water crashed through New Orleans' levee system.

A mass voluntary evacuation was launched two days before the hurricane struck, but local officials did not make it mandatory until 19 hours before landfall. And by the time they did, many of the bus drivers who might be used in rescue efforts had already left the city, according to Representative Malcolm Melancon, Democrat of Louisiana.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco called her state's evacuation ''the one thing we did masterfully," noting that more than 90 percent of residents along the affected Gulf Coast were able to flee. ''Only 100,000 people out of 1.3 million were left in the region," she said.

Likewise, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called it ''one of the most successful mass evacuations in the history of the United States."

But Republican members of a House committee investigating the disaster accused both local Democratic officials with ignoring the safety of thousands of residents without their own means of transportation.

''I'm not concerned with the people who can drive their own cars," Representative Harold Rogers, Republican of Kentucky, said during an often heated session of questioning.

Even after the scope and direction of the storm was clear on Saturday, Aug. 27, Rogers noted, ''There was no mandatory evacuation ordered for the carless or those in hospitals or nursing homes not able to leave on their own." Among those killed by the flood waters that swamped nearly the entire city were elderly and ill patients trapped in medical facilities.

While it was Nagin's job to declare a mandatory evacuation, Blanco had the authority to overrule the mayor and impose one herself.

''The culture of New Orleans and Louisiana is that we tend to ride out a lot of storms," said Nagin.

Blanco agreed. ''We have some people that are ornery that way," the governor noted.

''It is America. You can't force people to get on buses," added a top Blanco aide, Colonel Jeff Smith of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

But Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, accused Blanco and her staff of ''making excuses when no excuse should have been given."

Noting that a mandatory evacuation order would have set into motion steps such as engaging transportation for nursing home patients, Shays said local officials missed a window for helping sick, disabled, and poor residents.

After waters surged through the city's levee systems, television cameras captured images of poor, sick, and disabled residents -- most of them African-American -- trapped in buildings and on bypasses.

The Bush administration and its Federal Emergency Management Agency were blamed for slow and faulty rescue efforts. FEMA director Michael Brown, described yesterday as ''clueless" by Shays, was reassigned in the midst of the recovery effort.

Since then, some Republican lawmakers have tried to shift blame back onto the shoulders of local leaders, particularly Democrats Nagin and Blanco. But both officials insisted that their evacuation efforts worked.

However, Nagin conceded that if he had spoken with the National Weather Service official earlier in the day Saturday, he would have invoked a mandatory evacuation sooner.

''I wish I could have spoken with Max earlier," the mayor said.

Yesterday's hearing came against the backdrop of new requests from Gulf Coast officials for federal aid to rebuild the hurricane-devastated region. New Orleans is a ''city that is being allowed to die as we speak," Nagin said.

Congress has so far appropriated almost $70 billion for rebuilding areas along the Gulf Coast. But Nagin and Blanco say the money is not enough and comes with too many restrictions.

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