Sunday, December 04, 2005

La. Governor Seeks to 'Set the Record Straight'

Washington Post
Blanco Releases Katrina Records
La. Governor Seeks to 'Set the Record Straight'

By Joby Warrick, Spencer S. Hsu and Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writers

Thousands of documents released by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Friday night shed new light on clashes between state officials, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and the Bush administration as they struggled to respond to Hurricane Katrina.

Among the more than 100,000 pages of newly released records, which ranged from after-action reports to hand-scrawled notes written at the height of the storm, are memos showing Blanco frustrated and angered over delays in evacuations and the slow delivery of promised federal aid.

"We need everything you've got," Blanco is quoted in a memo as telling President Bush on Aug. 29, the day Katrina made landfall. But despite assurances from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that 500 buses were "standing by," Blanco's aides were compelled to take action when the FEMA buses failed to materialize, documents show. "We need buses," Andy Kopplin, chief of staff to Blanco, said in an e-mail to Blanco staffers late on Aug. 30, the day after the storm hit. "Find buses that can go to NO [New Orleans] ASAP."

Two days later, on Sept. 2, Blanco complained to the White House that FEMA had still failed to fulfill its promises of aid. While cloaked in customary political courtesies, Blanco noted that she had already requested 40,000 more troops; ice, water and food; buses, base camps, staging areas, amphibious vehicles, mobile morgues, rescue teams, housing, airlift and communications systems, according to a press office e-mail of the text of her letter to Bush.

"Even if these initial requests had been fully honored, these assets would not be sufficient," Blanco said. She also asked for the return of the Louisiana Army National Guard's 256th Brigade Combat Team, then deployed to Iraq.

Tensions between state leaders and the White House seemed at times near the boiling point. At 3:49 p.m. on Sept. 2, after spending three hours to appear with Bush at a Mississippi news conference, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) wrote Blanco's staff, "I am returning home to baron[sic] rouge in hoping I can accomplish something for the people I represent other than being occupied with PR."

He added that Bush's "entire effort on behalf of the federal government has been reflected in his and his people's nonchalant attitude to the people of LA. You may give him this to read."

The documents, which were posted on the Internet late Friday, also provide the most detailed account yet of the harrowing conditions at the storm's epicenter, as state officials and emergency workers fought to retain control amid rising floodwaters and failing communications systems. Their release comes amid new efforts by Blanco to defend her government's much-criticized response to the nation's costliest natural disaster.

Raw and frequently conflicting, reflecting the chaotic conditions in the initial hours after the storm hit, the records paint an intimate portrait of a state struggling to overcome extremes of weather and bureaucratic incompetence as the storm ripped its way across the state.

The documents were prepared in response to requests by two congressional committees investigating the federal response to Katrina. Blanco spokeswoman Denise Bottcher said the governor decided to release the documents "publicly not to vindicate herself, but to set the record straight."

"You can see the requests that were made, day after day, hour after hour," Bottcher said yesterday.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she has not seen the documents, but noted multiple reviews of the week of the storm are underway, "and all levels of government have a responsibility to take stock of what happened, act on it, and then make sure it doesn't ever happen again."

Blanco has been struggling to repair her image after being widely criticized for the state's initial response to Katrina. In contrast to reports that she was indecisive and overwhelmed, the new documents portray her as assertive, if somewhat beleaguered. "I believe my biggest mistake was believing FEMA officials who told me that the necessary federal resources would be available in a timely fashion," Blanco wrote in one memo.

Among the trove of documents were thousands of internal e-mails, handwritten notes and communiques that show the governor's staff responding to dozens of crises as the severity of the storm became apparent. As late as Friday evening, Aug. 26, Louisiana hurricane planners expected the storm to hit eastern Mississippi, causing only a two- to four-foot tidal surge in the state. But when they met 12 hours later, they discovered the storm track had shifted west and was projected to swamp coastal areas with surges of as much as 18 feet.

By early Saturday, with predictions for Katrina becoming increasingly dire, Blanco had launched a desperate effort to persuade New Orleanians to evacuate ahead of the storm, memos show.

Her staff began calling ministers in African American churches, telling them to advise parishioners to "pack and pray." But with the city's evacuation efforts still lagging, Blanco decided she needed to appear publicly with Nagin. Some on her staff expressed concern that such an "artificial event" would pull people from their posts during evacuation preparation, but Blanco "seems to feel that a show of unity is important for the people of the area to see," according to an e-mail. It was decided that the meeting would be held on "Nagin's turf."

After the storm hit, Blanco's staff was under siege on every front, the communiques show. Someone sent word that 60 people were starving and dying at a sugar refinery. Another reported that elderly patients were trapped in a nursing home. "Our crews just got into St. Tammany Parish and it is bad," said an Aug. 29 e-mail to Kopplin, Blanco's chief of staff. "They are under water, major damage and they need someone from the state and FEMA to help."

Intermingled with the damage reports were hundreds of offers of assistance, from every conceivable source. A church called to offer buses. A developer called to offer the use of a mall. Jordan's King Abdullah called asking to speak with Blanco. The Italian consul general in Houston sent word that he was "headed to New Orleans to pick up stranded Italians" and did not want to be stopped by state police.

The next day, as images of New Orleans's devastation became clear, an e-mail to the governor's assistant chief of staff -- the sender's name was redacted in the documents -- said that Nagin "seemed overwhelmed and didn't have a clue on national news," and listed selling points for Blanco's office to use in gaining federal help: "New Orleans inextricably tied to national economy, 25 percent offshore oil contribution and number one port in U.S."

Blanco's office was concerned with perceptions, too. Jerry Luke LeBlanc, Blanco's chief financial adviser, stressed the need to take control of hurricane victim relief funds. LeBlanc said he had already seen political commentator James Carville and musician Wynton Marsalis, both Louisiana-born, on national TV "saying they are raising money for this effort. We have got to get this under control."

Other documents from Louisiana's state and emergency preparedness command detail how emergency workers struggled to cope with encroaching floodwaters and the rising human toll over ensuing days. The reports paint a scene of growing chaos, beginning at dawn Aug. 29, with flood-control pumping stations failing, "extensive flooding in eastern New Orleans," fires and building collapses.

That day National Guard helicopters rescued 2,296 people from rooftops and "newly created islands," according a Louisiana National Guard report. Blackhawks designed to carry 11 passengers ignored standard operating procedures; one crew loaded 31 evacuees into one of the helicopters.

Overnight the crisis deepened. Although FEMA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel in New Orleans reported witnessing a massive break hundreds of feet long in the 17th Street Canal levee that afternoon -- effectively dooming the city -- the first report of the collapse in the state police log came at 3 a.m. the next day, Aug. 30.

By that time, police had tracked 548 calls for help, mostly people from New Orleans trapped in attics or on rooftops. Pleas for rescue would grow throughout the day, a new 911 call every minute on average.

"The water in the City of New Orleans is rising," the state police log reported at 3 p.m. on Aug. 30. By that time, Charity and Tulane University hospitals had flooded. Inmates had freed themselves at Orleans Parish Prison, threatening 150 deputies and family members in a second-floor break room.

A gun store was burglarized, with dispatchers noting, "Every gun has been stolen including assault rifles." Railroad tanker cars filled with chemicals were entangled in power lines, creating fears of chlorine, acid and oil spills.

At 6 p.m., state police Trooper Robert Bennett reported, "New Orleans City Hall is starting to take on water. They are closing their EOC at 1800hrs. They don't know where or when it will be reopened."

The night of Aug. 30 , police recorded a cry for help every 25 seconds, or 900 calls between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. By 11 a.m. Aug. 31, the police log shows, National Guard units abandoned air rescues, changing over to dropping food and water.

Blanco's response can be found at