Just before midnight on August 26, three days before Katrina was to make landfall, Kathleen Blanco received a phone call from George Bush. The president had been through a series of briefings from Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin and knew the potential dangers to New Orleans and the surrounding area from a storm the size of Katrina. Now he was attempting to convince the Governor of Louisiana that she needed to take immediate action.
His pleas fell on deaf ears. It seemed that the Governor was more concerned with the legalities of accepting federal assistance, and the appearance that her office could not handle the emergency.
Despite Governor Blanco’s reluctance to coordinate the state’s efforts with federal assistance, President Bush declared a state of emergency for Louisiana two full days before Katrina hit the Louisiana coast. The move allowed FEMA to begin staging relief supplies for immediate distribution in New Orleans once the storm had passed.
The president's emergency declaration also allowed FEMA to coordinate all disaster relief efforts and to provide appropriate assistance in a number of Louisiana parishes. All that was left to do was wait for Kathleen Blanco to request Federal assistance. Under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which was revised after 9/11, the Federal Government and FEMA are not allowed to interfere with local operations unless they are authorized by state and local leaders.
Meanwhile Blanco had her own advisors insisting that the President was actually making a request for federal takeover of the Louisiana National Guard, and asking to put Louisiana State Police under federal control. They were concerned that this would be the same as martial law and lead to abuse of power by the federal government.
The next day, August 27, Bush called Blanco again and urged her to order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, she refuses.
By August 28, with Katrina less than 24 hours away, Governor Blanco had not made the decision to allow FEMA workers to assist with relief efforts. On this same day, Max Maxfield, the National Hurricane Director, called Mayor Ray Nagin and educated him on the force of nature was bearing down on his city.
He stressed to Nagin that this storm could clean New Orleans off the map. “A storm this size and intensity will destroy the levees in New Orleans, they were not built for this,” he said. Apparently Maxfield made his point, Mayor Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans on Sunday, August 28.
At 6:44am on August 29, Hurricane Katrina crossed Caprien Bay and slammed into Buras, Louisiana packing winds of 144 miles an hour and pushing a 24 foot wall of water ahead of her. The tidal surge fanned out in a cone ahead of the eye wall. As she crossed the Biloxi Wildlife Management Area and into Lake Borgne, the wall of water entered Lake Ponchartrain and began to affect the levee system of New Orleans.
The eye continued north and made landfall again at the Mississippi/Louisiana border. As Katrina progressed inland the wind shifted, forcing additional pressure on the 17th Street Canal levee.
On the afternoon of August 29, in downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter, the brunt of the high winds had passed. Residents began to peek out and discovered the city was mostly intact. There was wind damage, and some water in the streets, but they had seen this before and weren't concerned. Sometime during the night of the 29th or early morning of the 30th, water began to poor through the 17th Street Canal levee. New Orleans began to flood.
By Tuesday, August 30, the federal relief effort began shipping food, water and medical supplies toward Louisiana for use in New Orleans. The same operation was underway in Mississippi and Alabama. The governors of those states had a already signed on to federal help and relief was pouring in. Governor Blanco was the lone holdout. She had still not made a decision.
The Department of Defense sent search and rescue experts, doctors, nurses and support personnel. FEMA was there to help as much as they could but local and state officials would not allow them to participate because Governor Blanco still had not given her permission .
Residents of New Orleans watched as the flood waters continued to poor through the breach in the 17th Street Canal levee and by Wednesday their frustration began to boil. The summer sun baked survivors on rooftops. Those who made it to the Superdome were now wandering through the gutted building, waiting for relief supplies and help which never came. Mayor Ray Nagin cursed everyone who failed to move fast enough, but Kathleen Blanco toured the stricken city in a helicopter while she conducted a news interview for CBS. On the ground, state officials were struggling with the magnitude of the disaster, but were rapidly being overwhelmed.
Federal officials were on standby, ready to move, but Governor Blanco had still mot made a decision to ask for federal help.
That evening, Blanco watched as reports of rapes and looting poured into the command center. National news agencies began to run video of looters breaking into stores and making off with garbage bags of goods. One policeman was shot in the head.
Other rescue workers reported hearing bullets zinging around them as they tried to save lives. New Orleans was out of control, and the media was wondering who was in charge.
On Thursday, September 1, amid a growing clamor of questions about the lack of action being taken in New Orleans, Blanco finally signed Executive Order KBB-2005-23, giving permission for the federal government to enter Louisiana with military assistance.
FEMA began to move supplies into the stricken parishes along the path of Katrina. The Red Cross was finally given permission to deliver the food and water it had stockpiled in the area. Lt. General Russel Honore arrived and began to take command of the military assets which were already in place. As he barked orders, things began to happen, rapidly. Mayor Ray Nagin said, "He came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussing and people started moving.” Nagin called Gen Honore a “John Wayne kind of dude!”
In the first 12 hours after Governor Blanco relinquished control of the rescue and relief effort in New Orleans, military helicopters flew more rescue missions than in the previous three days. Un-official count of those taken out of the flooded city topped 10,000.
By Friday September 2, the federal relief effort was in full swing. Gen. Honore was now totally in charge and the effects of a firm leader were evident. A convoy of about 50 military vehicles arrived at the Convention Center where 7,000 storm survivors had waited for 4 days without food or water. When the convoy arrived military police quickly took charge and began to assist the survivors. State officials had halted the evacuations from two New Orleans hospitals, however, under Gen Honore’s command, the Army and National Guard began ferrying the injured and sick to safety.
State Police, along with Military Police and other federal law enforcement agencies began restoring order. President Bush visited command posts in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to personally make sure that everything that could be done, was being done. When he returned to Washington on the evening of September 2, he signed a temporary spending bill directing 10.2 billion dollars in aid be sent to Katrina affected states. The situation was beginning to improve.
When the sick and injured are evacuated, the looters arrested, and the water drained, New Orleans will begin the enormous task of clean up and reconstruction. Already there are those in Congress who recognize that Louisiana has a reputation for being the most corrupt state in the country. They are strongly advocating that any federal money sent to Louisiana NOT be put into the hands of Louisiana officials.
Rep. Tom Tancredo suggested that all federal money be funneled through a House Committee. “Given the long history of political corruption in Louisiana, I am not confident that Louisiana officials can be trusted to administer federal relief aid.”
Currently, three officials with Louisiana State Office of Emergency Preparedness are under indictment for mis-handling of 30 million dollars in FEMA funds. In typical Louisiana fashion, Mark Smith of the Louisiana Homeland Security office said, “Really, it’s not that the money was misspent here or misspent there...it’s just a case of improper paperwork.”
Justice Department officials have said that 30 million dollars is a lot of misfiled forms. Reports state the money was spent on professional dues, up-scale leather briefcases, large screen T.V.s, stereo equipment, and a trip to Germany.
As coastal Louisiana begins to recover from this disaster, the voters in Louisiana are beginning to re-evaluate their choice of leaders. The voices for change in a state that has been called the nations only “banana republic” are growing louder. They vow to rebuild, both their beloved New Orleans and the political system that failed he