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Sunday, December 4, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Government's Katrina response seen in newly released papers

The Washington Post

Thousands of documents released Friday night by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco shed new light on clashes between state officials, New Orleans Mayor 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 (FEMA) 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 late Aug. 30, the day after the storm hit. "Find buses that can go to NO [New Orleans] ASAP."

Unfulfilled promises

On Sept. 2, Blanco complained to the White House that FEMA had failed to fulfill its promises of aid. While cloaked in customary political courtesies, Blanco noted that she had requested 40,000 more troops; ice, water and food; base camps; staging areas; buses, amphibious vehicles and mobile morgues; rescue teams; and housing, airlift and communications systems, according to a press office e-mail of the text of her letter to President 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 [baton] ... rouge in hoping I can accomplish something for the people I represent other than being occupied with PR."

Conditions at epicenter

The documents, posted late Friday on the Internet, 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.

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 Saturday.

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 seen as assertive

Blanco has been struggling to repair her image after being widely criticized for the state's initial response to Katrina. The new documents portray Blanco as assertive, if somewhat beleaguered, during the crisis. "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.

By early Saturday, Aug. 27, with predictions for Katrina becoming more dire, Blanco began an 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 lagging, Blanco decided she needed to appear publicly with Nagin. 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 memos show. Someone sent word that 60 people were starving and dying at a sugar refinery. Another reported 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.

Hundreds of offers

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 Louisiana State Police.

The next day, as images of New Orleans' devastation became clear, an e-mail to the governor's assistant chief of staff — the sender's name was redacted — said 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."

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.

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, 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.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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