Blanco, Nagin Defend Katrina Response

In a visit to Capitol Hill, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin defend their actions immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina. They faced strong criticism from Republicans on a House committee investigating the government's response to the storm.

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Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin were in Washington today defending their actions immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina. They faced strong criticism from Republicans on the House committee that's investigating the government's response to the storm. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Committee Chairman Tom Davis of Virginia tried to set the tone for the hearing. He said the investigation is about fixing problems, not politics. But it didn't take long for the finger-pointing to begin. Many Republicans think too much blame for the poor government response has been placed on the Bush White House and not enough on Louisiana's Democratic officials. Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers said he didn't understand why so many New Orleans residents remained in the city despite repeated warnings that a big storm was headed their way.

Representative HAROLD ROGERS (Republican, Kentucky): That's what we're concerned about: Why was not the mandatory evacuation orders that the city and the state had in place activated?

FESSLER: Blanco said evacuations were taking place throughout the weekend before the storm, but that the state was doing it in phases so highways wouldn't get jammed.

Governor KATHLEEN BLANCO (Democrat, Louisiana): Because the word `mandatory' was not used until Sunday morning does not mean that we were not evacuating the area.

FESSLER: She said in all, 1.2 million people, about 92 percent of the population, were safely evacuated. She called that a huge accomplishment in a state frequently warned that hurricanes are on the way.

Gov. BLANCO: There are always people who believe that they're tougher than storms. And you know what? They were right. If the levee hadn't failed, they wouldn't have been in any trouble.

FESSLER: But of course, the levees did fail, and committee members noted that was something predicted in a 2004 hurricane exercise.

Blanco said everyone was overwhelmed by the storm, and that she repeatedly asked the federal government for help, but that it took days to arrive. Republican Steve Buyer of Indiana countered that Blanco spurned White House offers to take over National Guard operations in the state.

Representative STEVE BUYER (Republican, Indiana): You're quick to criticize the federal response, but when the federal government offered the military assistance, you didn't want the federal response ...(unintelligible).

Gov. BLANCO: I certainly wanted every bit.

Rep. BUYER: You wanted your own National Guard to be taken out of...

Gov. BLANCO: No, sir.

Unidentified Man: All right.

Gov. BLANCO: No, sir.

Rep. BUYER: That's what it...

Gov. BLANCO: No, sir. I needed people. I needed every boot on the ground that I could get, and I never rejected federal assistance; I begged for it.

FESSLER: But the administration officials complained at the time that Blanco's requests were too vague.

When New Orleans Mayor Nagin was asked by the committee if in retrospect he should have issued a mandatory evacuation before Sunday morning, he referred to a phone call he received Saturday night from Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Democrat, New Orleans): If I would have done anything differently, I wish I could have spoken with Max earlier, because when he called and said in his 33 years of experience with hurricanes, he had never seen an event like this, conditions like this and that this hurricane was definitely coming for New Orleans--yes, if I could have gotten that word earlier, I would have issued it earlier.

FESSLER: But several lawmakers noted that there were plenty of other earlier warnings. Democrats countered that the Bush administration received those same warnings. House investigators are trying to sort it all out before issuing a final report in February. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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