Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco yesterday said it was insulting that her state has been asked to repay a small percentage of $62 billion in emergency aid it received after Hurricane Katrina, said federal guidelines on the aid are too restrictive and asked for another $60 billion.

Mrs. Blanco, appearing before a House panel investigating the preparation and response to Katrina, repeatedly cited the failure of the federally constructed levee system for the devastation in New Orleans and dared panel members to criticize her efforts.

“Hardworking Americans who did everything right have lost their homes. They’re being denied insurance coverage and end up, on top of all that, with ruined credit ratings, through no fault of their own. I’m asking you not to forget them. It’s all because the levees failed,” Mrs. Blanco said.

Mrs. Blanco later bristled at a barrage of questions, mainly about the state’s handling of the pre-storm evacuation, from House members and dared them not to second-guess how state officials reacted to the storm.

“We’re not going to sit here and be accused of not doing everything in our power,” the Democratic governor said.

Many residents have stayed behind during previous storms and thought they could ride out Katrina, Mrs. Blanco said, which only frustrated lawmakers who said she neglected to use her power to order a mandatory evacuation at least 24 hours before the storm hit.

“What I am concerned about is those who could not drive their own car; those who were left behind, the sick and maimed, people who did not have a car or other means of public transportation,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican.

Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, one of only a handful of Democrats to appear at the hearing, said the buses were there, but the drivers had already evacuated.

Mrs. Blanco’s answers did not satisfy Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican.

“You have made the best argument for why you should make it mandatory, and the fact that you somehow aren’t getting that now troubles me.”

“I get it, sir, I get it,” Mrs. Blanco responded. “We’re still dealing with human beings who interpret what they hear in their own way. And we did call for mandatory evacuations in the low-lying areas, and 100 percent of the people did not leave, sir.”

In prepared comments to the committee, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the evacuation was “one of the most successful mass evacuations” ever conducted, with more than a million people leaving within 24 hours.

Nearly 1,000 people died in the post-Katrina flooding that inundated about 80 percent of New Orleans.

Mrs. Blanco thanked the panel for the emergency funds, but said the state should not have to repay any of it.

“We have been served with a $3.7 billion estimated bill from FEMA — 3.7 billion — Louisiana generates $7 billion each year from our own tax sources. It added insult to injury,” Mrs. Blanco said. FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mrs. Blanco asked Congress to pay for up to $30 billion to cover uninsured losses, $12.1 billion to rebuild homes, an unspecified amount of community development block grants and 100 percent federal match for Medicare.

As for how the money will be spent or accounted for in the future, Mrs. Blanco said, “We’re going to audit and reaudit and audit every single nickel you give us. Don’t worry about it.”

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