tampabay.com

Katrina response inquiry has stormy start

By WES ALLISON
Published September 23, 2005


WASHINGTON - It wasn't long after the chairman welcomed the hopefully named "select bipartisan committee" investigating the Hurricane Katrina response that its members turned like the storm and drove straight for New Orleans.

After pledging to follow the facts without preconceived notions or political bias, several Republicans aimed at the failure of local officials along the Gulf Coast, particularly in Democratic New Orleans, to evacuate with sufficient urgency.

The hearing marked the start of the congressional inquiry into what went wrong before and after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama three weeks ago.

But it didn't enjoy a clean start. The Democrats are essentially boycotting because Republican leaders refused to give them either an equal number of members or full subpoena power. Democrats want an independent commission, on the grounds that the Republican-led Congress can't be trusted to investigate the Bush administration.

"I am not going to . . . validate what I consider to be a whitewash," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday.

So Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., who heads the House Government Reform Committee, opened the hearing lopsidedly. With Pelosi on strike, Republicans asked several Gulf Coast Democrats to join and two did, Reps. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana and Gene Taylor of Mississippi, who lost his own home.

Next week, the committee will hear from Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who resigned in the wake of criticism about FEMA's response.

But Thursday was not the day to attack the Bush administration. The committee's focus on local leaders was sharpened by the accuracy of the National Hurricane Center, which predicted Katrina's path within 15 miles of its landfall.

The first witness was Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield, who testified via video-phone from his Miami office. The fact that his center's forecasts were accurate for 56 hours before the storm hit should have given ample time to evacuate New Orleans, several Republicans said.

Mayfield acknowledged he took the unusual step of calling the governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana two days before the storm to warn them of Katrina's strength. He also called New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

"At times, I think some of my politicians can be a little isolated," Mayfield said. "I wanted to be absolutely sure they understood."

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., suggested Mayfield warned them to evacuate immediately, and they didn't listen. Not true, Mayfield said, despite reports to the contrary.

Some committee members pointed to a particularly colorful National Weather Service bulletin: "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks - perhaps longer. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards."

"To be fair to everyone making the evacuation decisions," Mayfield said, "they know that we don't always have a perfect forecast."

Rogers was unconvinced. "Well, your warnings . . ." He stopped. "Well, I won't conclude."