Wednesday, September 14, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco yesterday took responsibility for failures and missteps in the immediate response to Hurricane Katrina and pledged a united effort to rebuild areas ravaged by the storm.

“We all know that there were failures at every level of government: state, federal and local. At the state level, we must take a careful look at what went wrong and make sure it never happens again. The buck stops here, and as your governor, I take full responsibility,” Mrs. Blanco told lawmakers in a special meeting of the Louisiana Legislature.

Mrs. Blanco’s statement came a day after President Bush said he would “take responsibility” for federal failures in dealing with Katrina. The Democratic governor, who has criticized the response of federal officials to the storm and subsequent flood that deluged New Orleans, yesterday told legislators that Mr. Bush is “a friend and partner” in Louisiana’s recovery effort.

In New Orleans yesterday, test results released showed that floodwaters still pose a health risk because of dangerous levels of sewage-related bacteria and toxic chemicals, potentially delaying the mayor’s plan to reopen parts of the city by Monday.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that up to 50 percent of the floodwaters that had covered 80 percent of the city had been removed and said New Orleans would be almost completely drained by Oct. 8.

Pumps are removing more than 8 billion gallons a day, and Mayor C. Ray Nagin was deliberating time frames for reopening parts of the city that are dry, including the French Quarter and Central Business District.

Addressing Louisiana lawmakers yesterday, Mrs. Blanco said she would appoint an outside financial adviser to oversee the expenditure of billions of dollars in federal money that Congress has allocated to help the recovery from the disaster.

“I assure the Congress and every American taxpayer that every nickel will be properly spent,” Mrs. Blanco said.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Senate Republicans scuttled an attempt by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, to establish an independent, bipartisan panel patterned after the September 11 commission to investigate what went wrong with federal, state and local governments’ response to the hurricane.

Separately, a Senate committee opened a hearing on the disaster, with the panel’s Republican chairman saying that changes instituted after September 11 in the government’s emergency preparedness failed their first major test during Katrina.

With billions of dollars to boost disaster preparedness at all levels of government, “we would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy,” said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican. “Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response.”

The official death toll from Hurricane Katrina rose to 708 yesterday after Louisiana confirmed 51 more deaths. In addition to Louisiana’s 474 deaths, 218 deaths have been recorded in Mississippi, two in Alabama and 14 in Florida, according to officials in the different states.

At least two of the Katrina evacuees scattered across the country have committed suicide, and 55 others have died, authorities said yesterday.

Most of the post-Katrina dead were elderly or already sick, with heart conditions, cancer or other terminal illnesses, authorities said. Many had been living in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. Several suffered heart attacks.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Blanco had lashed out at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), saying she was “outraged” at the slow pace of recovering bodies of those who perished in the storm. Yesterday, FEMA responded by saying that Louisiana officials asked to take over the effort last week.

“The collection of bodies is not normally a FEMA responsibility,” FEMA spokesman David Passey said.

According to documents released by the state yesterday, Kenyon International Emergency Services was hired Tuesday to recover, document and handle the bodies of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The contract will cost almost $119,000 a day for two months.

“It’s going to take months, maybe years,” said Dr. Louis Cataldi, the coroner for Baton Rouge Parish. “This is not going away.”

Louisiana transportation officials estimated yesterday that about 1.2 million people were evacuated from the metropolitan New Orleans area in the two days leading up to Katrina’s Aug. 29 landfall and that many of those people are still scattered in other states.

Despite speculation that some would prefer to settle in their new towns, Mr. Nagin expected most would return and rebuild.

“I know New Orleanians,” he said. “Once the beignets start cooking up again and the gumbo is in the pots and red beans and rice are served on Monday — in New Orleans, and not where they are — they’re going to be back.”

A day after Mr. Nagin said the city is essentially broke, New Orleans’ already beleaguered school system announced that it would also need federal assistance to keep paying its teachers.

Dan Packer, chief executive of Entergy New Orleans, said the company had restored power to 75 percent of the 1.1 million customers who were out at the height of the storm, mostly in Mississippi and areas of Louisiana north and west of New Orleans.

President Bush will arrive in Louisiana today to deliver a prime-time televised speech to the nation.

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