Flood pump-out begins

Congress vows probe as New Orleans drains

Mayor authorizes forced evacuations

Bush prepares to ask billions more in aid

FEMA, its director target of harshest criticism

Katrina's Wake

September 07, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As the water levels in New Orleans finally began to recede yesterday, Congress returned to work expressing horror at the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, vowing to funnel more federal aid to the affected areas - and promising to delve into what went wrong.

Lawmakers approved $10.5 billion for the ravaged region late last week, and President Bush is expected to send a request for tens of billions more as early as today.

Even with some progress in the states savaged by Katrina, the situation remained tenuous.

Late last night, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin authorized law enforcement officers and the U.S. military to force the evacuation of all residents who refuse to heed orders to leave.

An estimated 10,000 residents are thought to remain in the city, and some have been holed up in their homes for more than a week.

"It is not safe," Nagin told CNN. "I understand the spirit is `I do not want to abandon my city.' It's OK. Go to a better place."

Earlier, Police Chief Edwin Compass said authorities would remove people bodily if necessary. He said phones are out in the city and that people who remain would not be able to call police if they needed help.

The Army Corps of Engineers reported that the main levee breach had been temporarily patched with rock, and that two other breaks had also been briefly blocked, allowing engineers to turn their attention to drawing water out of the flooded city.

On Capitol Hill, much of the talk was of the enormous need in states hit by Katrina and in states that have taken in thousands of evacuees. Lawmakers said the government needs to solve problems, such as where and how displaced children can go to school, sometimes thousands of miles from home, and offer assistance - from unemployment insurance to health insurance to temporary housing.

Pointed questions

But there also were pointed questions about why the federal government's response was so lacking for so long, and what must be changed to assure a smoother response in future disasters - including a terrorist attack.

"The first obligation of government is to protect its citizens. In its initial response to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, particularly in Louisiana, governments at all levels failed in this obligation," said Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican and the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is set to open hearings next week on the government's response.

"It is difficult to understand the lack of preparedness and the ineffective initial response to a disaster that had been predicted for years and for which specific dire warnings had been given for days," she said.

The loudest criticism was reserved for the Federal Emergency Management Agency - the government's primary responder for disaster relief - and its director, Michael Brown.

Critics also said that FEMA, which became part of the Department of Homeland Security when that agency was created, is a bad fit in a department mainly devoted to fighting terrorism. The agency should be independent of the department and its director given Cabinet-level standing, answering directly to the president, they said.

Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland proposed legislation that would do just that, returning FEMA to the status it had during the Clinton administration and requiring that the director and other top officials have experience in disaster management.

They also are pushing for the president and Congress to appoint a panel modeled after the Sept. 11 commission that would study the response to Katrina.

`We lost our way'

"I don't want to be involved in political finger-pointing, but the fact is, we went from a professional agency to a crony agency," said Mikulski. "And we lost our way, and we're not serving anybody."

She also called for Brown to resign, saying that new leadership is needed to ensure a disaster is never handled this way again.

"I think it's time FEMA becomes FEMA again, instead of the back bench of Homeland Security," Mikulski said.

Other lawmakers were open to the idea of making FEMA its own agency.

"Preliminarily, my opinion is, absolutely it was a mistake" to fold FEMA into Homeland Security, said Sen. Trent Lott, a Republican who saw a home on the Mississippi coast destroyed by Katrina.

"There's no reason why they should answer to a Cabinet secretary," he said. "They should answer to the big man."

On the other hand, Lott added, "You can't blame that decision on anybody but us. We made that decision."

Lott said that while he has many specific complaints with FEMA's work, he does not think Brown should go. "The last time I checked, when a ship is going down, you don't throw the admiral overboard," he said.

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