- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

The mayor of New Orleans, a harsh critic of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, is coming under increasing fire for exacerbating the disaster by not properly implementing his city’s emergency-management plan.

A high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official, who asked not to be identified, yesterday said local leaders have known for years that the city’s levees were not adequate to protect the Big Easy if it was struck by a Category 3 or greater hurricane.

The official, who also questioned the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) slow response to the disaster, said Mayor C. Ray Nagin knew the National Weather Service had issued an alert Aug. 28 saying a hurricane warning was in effect for the north-central Gulf Coast, including New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.

The weather service alert called for maximum sustained winds of 160 mph with higher gusts and a coastal storm surge flooding of 18 to 22 feet above normal tide levels, along with “large and dangerous” battering waves.

The alert said some levees in the greater New Orleans area “could be overtopped.”

The official said Mr. Nagin waited too long to order a mandatory evacuation and later blamed others, including President Bush, for the resulting destruction and loss of life.

Homeland Security personnel were told that Mr. Nagin had been concerned about the city’s liability for the mandatory closing of hotels and other businesses, the official said.

The official said Mr. Nagin had several hundred school and city buses at his disposal with which to evacuate the city and that the fleet could have been used in accordance with a New Orleans evacuation plan to remove 12,000 people per run.

Bob Williams, a former state representative in Washington state whose district was devastated by the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, said “it is clear that Nagin completely failed.”

“He failed to pull the trigger and do the mandatory evacuation,” Mr. Williams said. “I find it unthinkable that he didn’t get the buses and go into those areas. He allowed [the buses] to remain at a low level and to be flooded and useless.”

Confusion remained yesterday over Mr. Nagin’s mandatory evacuation orders — reissued because of the 10,000 or so who remain in a city that has become a watery, toxic health hazard — and what Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco is willing to carry out.

Mrs. Blanco said that despite Mr. Nagin’s order, only the governor has the authority to order a mandatory evacuation under state law, and she was unwilling to do so late yesterday afternoon.

“We are trying to determine if that is absolutely necessary now. It’s going to continue to be urged,” said Mrs. Blanco, adding that if “there is a problem with disease,” the state will “move to the next step.”

Management consultant Charlie Fleetham, who specializes in dealing with crises, said Mr. Nagin displayed “antiquated leadership” and “seemed to panic” when New Orleans began to flood and devolve into chaos, looting, violence and death.

Several other Homeland Security officials, along with federal law-enforcement authorities, said Louisiana has a history of poor management and use of FEMA funds, including a suspected conspiracy by three top officials at the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness involving misspent funds for flood-prone homes.

In March, FEMA demanded that Louisiana repay $30.4 million in flood and hazard mitigation grants awarded to 23 parishes between 1997 and 2002.

Last year, a federal grand jury in Shreveport indicted three top officials in the New Orleans agency on charges of obstructing an investigation into how federal money was spent to buy flood-prone homes.

All have pleaded not guilty. Some of the grants had been awarded in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Frances last year, Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

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