Page 2 of 2   <      

Blanco Releases Katrina Records

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 http://gov.louisiana.gov


<       2

© 2005 The Washington Post Company