Blanco Criticizes Levees, Hails Evacuation Efforts

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, at the House panel to testify about Hurricane Katrina.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, at the House panel to testify about Hurricane Katrina. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) yesterday declared efforts to evacuate state and New Orleans residents before Hurricane Katrina "an outstanding success" and told members of Congress they would not be investigating the government's flawed response into the Aug. 29 storm if levees protecting the city had not failed.

Over three hours of measured, at times defiant testimony to a House investigative panel, the first-term governor rebutted Republican charges that overwhelmed state and city leaders did not order the evacuation of New Orleans soon enough or provide transportation or relief to poor, sick and elderly residents who did not get out before floodwaters rose.

Blanco's appearance, along with that of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, capped a week of last-minute wrangling before Congress recesses for the holidays over efforts to double the size of a $17 billion Bush administration hurricane recovery package. Their appearance also prompted a political firefight, as Republicans highlighted state and local officials' actions during the catastrophe that killed more than 1,200 people and caused more than $100 billion in damage, and Democrats tried to turn the spotlight back onto the White House role in an attack on its national preparedness efforts.

Through it all, Blanco traded charges with GOP members over responsibility for the rebuilding effort, faulting "Katrina fatigue." She said Washington was tiring of the problems of more than 1 million Gulf Coast residents.

"Well, we're tired of it, too. We're tired of the tears. We're tired of the suffering. We're tired of being out of our homes and our businesses. . . . All of this because the levees failed," Blanco said, in a refrain affixing blame on an Army Corps of Engineers flood control system. "We don't want your pity. We just need a little help."

Under fire from Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and others who asked why so many trapped residents suffered for days while hundreds of school buses sat swamped in parking lots, Blanco shot back: "Now, you saw a lot of misery on that television screen, but we were living it. . . . We had to do a pre-evacuation that was an outstanding success and a post-evacuation that was not pretty. Now, that's the part you want to focus on."

Later, she added: "We got 1.2 million people out. We ended up saving another 100,000 people, and we lost 1,100. That's the whole story."

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) called that unacceptable, "because 1,100 people is one-half of the men and women we have lost in Operation Iraqi Freedom. You lost that many on one day."

Blanco, flanked by aides and two state veterans of the war, responded, "Then it's not acceptable for us [Louisiana] to lose 52 soldiers [in Iraq], either."

Blanco and Nagin said that authorities would not force Americans from their homes at gunpoint; that Hurricane Ivan showed last year that coastal communities needed to be evacuated before populous New Orleans emptied onto highways; and that officials feared legal liability to hotels and hospitals if an evacuation proved unnecessary.

Nagin, however, said that although official forecasts warned that Katrina threatened New Orleans starting at 4 a.m. Aug. 27, he did not realize until overnight that it would hit. He ordered a mandatory evacuation at 9 a.m. Aug. 28. "Yes, if I had gotten that word earlier, I would have issued it earlier," he said.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the Katrina committee, deferred Democratic demands to subpoena key e-mails and documents from four top Bush officials, saying it would trigger a legal fight over executive privilege that would extend beyond the investigation's House-mandated Feb. 15 deadline.

The GOP-dominated panel agreed to wait for a private briefing today from a senior White House homeland security official, but subpoenaed the Pentagon for Katrina-related records that it has failed to produce.

"We cannot do our job if we don't get these documents, and we won't get these documents unless we subpoena them," said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), stating that failing to compel White House cooperation "would look like a whitewash of the worst kind."

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