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Friday, September 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bush to visit Texas before Rita

WASHINGTON — It took President Bush four days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans to set foot on the Gulf Coast to survey the damage.

Today, Bush is planning to visit his home state even before Hurricane Rita does.

Bush was in the last days of his planned five-week vacation at his Crawford, Texas, ranch when Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29. He ultimately cut his vacation short and returned to Washington two days later, but he didn't travel to the region until Sept. 2.

The White House had said then that Bush delayed visiting the hardest-hit parts of New Orleans so the security-heavy presidential entourage wouldn't get in the way of rescue and recovery efforts.

In Texas today, Bush plans to visit emergency crews as they prepare for Rita.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said, "We're not going to get in the way."

Beyond that scheduled visit, and the possibility of a quick return after Rita passes, Bush and his administration are trying to convey concern and competence in the face of what is expected to be a second devastating storm three weeks after the first.

Bush's homeland security chief designated Rita an "incident of national significance" Wednesday, a label that speeds a massive federal response effort

That didn't happen with Katrina until the day after the storm hit.

The Pentagon moved 26 helicopters and five teams with high-tech communications gear into position. Six ships that responded to New Orleans, including the massive Iwo Jima, are ready to follow Rita to the Texas coastline.

Feds join probe

of nursing-home deaths

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators said yesterday they have joined a Louisiana inquiry into nursing-home deaths during Hurricane Katrina, as the government considers stronger requirements to protect patients in all health-care facilities during natural disasters.

The inspector general's office in the Department of Health and Human Services said it was aiding the investigation of 34 deaths at St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish. State authorities have charged the owners of the home with 34 counts of negligent homicide for allegedly ignoring requests to evacuate.

"This office is tremendously concerned about the possible abuse and neglect of hospital patients and nursing-home residents," Inspector General Daniel Levinson wrote to Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, in a letter released yesterday. Grassley has also asked for a Justice Department investigation.

Responsibility for oversight of health-care facilities is shared by state and federal agencies as well as by independent professional organizations that issue accreditation. Washington generally plays a secondary role to state regulators.

Federal regulations require nursing homes to have an evacuation plan tailored to local conditions, to train their staffs and to periodically practice the plan.

The nursing-home industry said it supports the government's efforts to investigate what went wrong in Louisiana, but officials say most facilities met and even exceeded their responsibilities.

House panel questions

hurricane-center chief

WASHINGTON — Even as another powerful hurricane hurtled through the Gulf of Mexico, House Republicans launched an investigation yesterday into the "largely abysmal" government response to Hurricane Katrina.

A preoccupied Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, took nearly an hour away from tracking Rita to reconstruct briefings and talks he had three weeks earlier with President Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi, and others.

As he testified via video link from Miami, Mayfield was receiving briefing papers on Rita's coordinates, with cellphones and pagers ringing in the background.

"I'm getting a little distracted here," he said, as an aide handed him papers while he answered a question from the select committee.

Mayfield recounted the steps he took to sound the alarm, including calling the Mississippi and Louisiana governors a day and a half before Katrina hit to personally convey the danger.

Only one other time in his 35-year career has he taken a similar step, he said.

Mayfield confirmed the National Weather Service first warned that Katrina could strike southeastern Louisiana some 56 hours before it made landfall.

As lawmakers praised the National Weather Service and Mayfield for the accuracy of the forecast, their questions focused on what federal, state and local officials knew and the speed of their evacuation plans.

Mayfield confirmed that Bush monitored a daily hurricane conference call Aug. 28 from his Texas ranch, the day before Katrina hit

House Republicans proceeded largely without Democrats, who are boycotting an inquiry that Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has labeled a "sham."

Democrats are pressing for an independent investigation by a 9/11 commission, an idea to which Republicans and the White House are cool.

Two Democratic congressmen from hard-hit districts in Louisiana and Mississippi attended yesterday's hearing.

More than 200,000 jobless from Katrina

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans thrown out of work by Katrina shot up by 103,000 last week, bringing the total seeking jobless benefits because of the storm to 214,000, the government reported yesterday.

The latest weekly jobless-claims figure showed the adverse economic impact from the country's most expensive natural disaster continues to rise, as more evacuees are able to make it to state unemployment offices to file claims.

The 214,000 total number of applications for unemployment benefits related to the hurricane included 91,000 claims for two weeks ago, a figure that had originally been put at 68,000, and 20,000 claims for the week ending Sept. 3.

Some private economists predict 500,000 people or more will have lost jobs when Katrina's final economic toll is calculated.

9/11 lesson still not learned, Gorton says

PHILADELPHIA — The chaotic response to Katrina shows that government leaders have failed to learn key lessons of the 9/11 attacks, former Washington Sen. Slade Gorton and another member of the 9/11 Commission said yesterday.

In Katrina, as in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, emergency responders struggled to communicate on incompatible radio systems, commission members Richard Ben-Veniste and Gorton said at a joint appearance in Philadelphia yesterday.

Gorton said officials in Mississippi responded admirably to Katrina, in part because of better communication systems.

But the two men gave failing grades to the federal response and to the local response in Louisiana, saying no one appeared to be in charge early on.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will never be a first responder but must at least be a speedy second responder to disasters, Gorton said.

DEATH TOLL

BATON ROUGE, La. — The death toll from Hurricane Katrina climbed to 1,069 yesterday after Louisiana officials raised the number of confirmed fatalities in that state to 832.

There were 218 dead in Mississippi and 19 deaths confirmed in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee from the Aug. 29 storm.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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