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Bush Accepts Blame for Slow Hurricane Response

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Times Staff Writers

President Bush took responsibility Tuesday for breakdowns in the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, saying the massive storm had “exposed serious problems in our response capability.”

Although personally shouldering blame for the first time, Bush also insisted that flaws occurred “at all levels of government,” and said he wanted more cooperative relations with state and local officials to aid dispossessed Gulf Coast residents. He plans a fourth post-hurricane trip to Louisiana on Thursday to deliver a national address on the crisis.

As Hurricane Katrina’s death toll in Louisiana rose to 423, bureaucratic infighting raged as the governor traded charges with federal emergency officials over bogged-down efforts to retrieve the bodies of flood victims.

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Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had jeopardized the massive body recovery effort by failing to renew a temporary contract with a Houston mortuary firm. Blanco said the state would try to rehire the company on its own, and accused FEMA of shirking its financial oversight for the retrieval process. FEMA officials insisted that they had no decision-making role, but later tried to reassure Blanco.

“No one, even those at the highest level, seems to be able to break through the bureaucracy to get this important mission done,” she said. “I am angry and outraged.”

National Guard and Army troops have joined in the retrieval of bodies in recent days, but the grim ordeal in New Orleans has moved slowly, hampered by the deteriorating condition of corpses left in floodwaters and exposed to the sun over the last two weeks. Military units have had to tether dozens of bodies to trees and poles so they can be found by overworked mortuary teams.

In the first major criminal case arising from the hurricane, the state’s chief prosecutor charged a husband and wife who owned a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish with negligent homicide, accusing them of abandoning dozens of elderly residents to die in the raging flood.

“They were warned repeatedly that this storm was coming,” said Louisiana Atty. Gen. Charles C. Foti Jr. Their inaction “resulted in the deaths of these people.”

Pathology experts and even a disaster mortuary official working for FEMA in the Gulf Coast expressed alarm at the risk of unattended bodies lying in the open for weeks. “What I’ve seen is not encouraging,” said Cotton Howell, a South Carolina emergency management official who is leading FEMA’s Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team in Mississippi. “It seems like there are all sorts of problems over there.”

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With water now covering less than 40% of New Orleans, there were more heartening signs of revival. The Army Corps of Engineers said it was pumping out about 9 billion gallons per day, and that the city should be drained of floodwaters in about a month.

The first passenger flights returned to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Port officials said they expected the first cargo ship to arrive next week. And Mayor C. Ray Nagin said he hoped to reopen the historic French Quarter and the city’s central business district next week, along with the Algiers and Uptown neighborhoods, which mostly escaped storm damage.

“We are bringing New Orleans back. We are bringing its culture back, we are bringing its music back,” Nagin said. Glancing up at military helicopters thudding overhead, he added: “I’m tired of hearing these helicopters. I want to hear some jazz.”

Nagin also acknowledged that Katrina’s knockout blow had exhausted the city’s cash reserves. “I don’t think we will have to” declare bankruptcy, Nagin said. “There are so many people who want to help us.” He added that he was “working furiously” to obtain lines of credit from banks and the federal government.

After a tour of the flood-ravaged city Monday, Bush had pledged that the federal government would help in New Orleans’ recovery. He deflected questions about federal mismanagement of Katrina relief, though, saying he would not “play the blame game” -- a phrase that White House officials used repeatedly after the storm.

But Tuesday, appearing at a Washington news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Bush spoke plainly when asked whether the government was prepared for another natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

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“Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government,” he said. “And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.”

Bush added that he wanted to “know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm? And that’s a very important question, and it’s in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on so we can better respond.”

By accepting personal responsibility, Bush appeared to try to shift the debate away from finger-pointing to the reconstruction of New Orleans, a formidable task that could repair his frayed image as a leader if it succeeded. Widespread public dismay with federal efforts has translated to Bush’s lowest polling numbers in his five years as president.

Bush’s admission drew immediate praise from one of his harshest critics.

“The president’s comments today will do more to move the country forward from this tragedy than anything that has been said by any leader in the past two weeks,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.). “Accountability at every level is critical, and leadership begins at the top.”

In Landrieu’s home state, debate simmered between Blanco and FEMA officials over who was responsible for a floundering corpse-recovery operation. Last week, FEMA announced that Kenyon International, a Houston company that retrieved bodies after the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks, had been hired to recover and transport the corpses of flood victims.

But Tuesday, Kenyon officials said they were unable to come to terms with FEMA to extend their contract. Blanco quickly lashed out, accusing FEMA of yet another failure. “In death, as in life, our people deserve more respect than they have received,” she said.

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David Passey, a FEMA spokesman, responded that the agency had only a supporting role in the operation and that the state was in charge. When state officials asked for assistance last week, Passey said, FEMA entered into a verbal agreement with Kenyon. Passey added that he did not know why Kenyon had rejected a written contract.

State officials responded that in order to be reimbursed for the massive operation, they needed FEMA’s financial approval. Irritated by the delay, Blanco said she “could not wait any longer” and authorized state officials to start their own negotiations with Kenyon. On Tuesday night, Blanco said she had been reassured by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is heading FEMA’s relief operation.

“He expressed his confidence that our federal partners are working hard to quickly recover all bodies,” Blanco said.

Kenyon spokesman Bill Berry said the firm’s more than 100 workers would remain on the job while the contract was being worked out.

“It’s not a case of FEMA not trying,” Berry said. “It’s not being able to -- whenever we were talking to the federal government, we were not getting what we needed.” He did not detail those needs.

Berry said the body retrieval operation was gaining speed -- but only after chaotic early days, when his teams were hamstrung by poor information on the location of bodies.

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“There was a lot of duplication,” he said. “We’d get one report from an agency of an address, and then we’d get another from another agency with a slightly different address, and they would be talking about the same body.”

The search for corpses was in full swing Tuesday as Louisiana’s death toll jumped from 279 to 423. Although authorities have scaled back predictions of thousands of deaths, high water still exists in some neighborhoods, and officials are preparing for hundreds more bodies.

“Let me caution everyone: We have not done the secondary searches in the areas where the water was the highest. So we still have a lot of work to do, and those numbers probably will go up,” said Nagin, who once warned of 10,000 deaths.

The mystery of how 34 people drowned under floodwaters inside a St. Bernard Parish nursing home unfolded as authorities arrested a married couple and charged them with negligent homicide.

Mable B. Mangano, 62, and Salvador A. Mangano Sr., 65, were each charged with 34 counts. Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The Manganos were booked into East Baton Rouge Parish prison, then released on their own recognizance.

“Thirty-four people drowned in a nursing home that should have been evacuated,” said Foti, the state attorney general, his voice rising.

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He alleged that as the hurricane approached, the Manganos turned down a parish offer of two buses to evacuate the residents. The couple also failed to call an ambulance company, Foti said.

The Manganos’ lawyer said his clients were faced with the prospect that the residents might die on an extended bus trip.

“What people have to understand is, you’re presented with a horrible choice,” James Cobb said. “You take people who are on feeder tubes, who are on oxygen, who are on medications, and you put them on a bus to go 70 miles in 12 hours? People are going to die.”

Foti said his office would also investigate the circumstances of multiple bodies found at other nursing homes, hospitals and care facilities, including Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, where 45 bodies were found over the weekend. The hospital’s officials said their patients were not abandoned to the flood but died of natural causes during a chaotic evacuation.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pumping out the water

Billions of gallons of water a day are being pumped out of flooded areas of New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the city will be dry by mid-October. Pumping status as of Monday:

Orleans East Bank

101 pumps at 23%

capacity. Dry by Oct 2.

Max. depth: 15 ft.; current: 12.1 ft.

*

Orleans East

101 pumps at 41%

capacity. Dry by Oct 8.

Max. depth: 15 ft.; current: 10 ft.

*

Chalmette

17 pumps at 18%

capacity. Dry by Oct 8.

Max. depth: 12 ft.; current: 6 ft.

*

Chalmette extension

6 pumps at 56%

capacity. Dry by Oct 8.

Max. depth: 10 ft.; current: 6 ft.

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How to help

The following agencies are among those providing assistance to hurricane victims:

* American Red Cross, (800) HELP NOW (435-7669), English; (800) 257-7575, Spanish

* America’s Second Harvest, (800) 771-2303

* Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, www.bushclintonkatrinafund.org

* Catholic Charities USA, (800) 919-9338

* Church of Scientology, (800) 435-7498, www.volunteerministers.org

* Episcopal Relief and Development, (800) 334-7626, Ext. 5129, www.er-d.org

* Humane Society of the United States, (888) 259-5431; (800) HUMANE1 (486-2631)

* International Medical Corps, (800) 481-4462, www.imcworldwide.org

* Operation USA, (800) 678-7255

* Relief International, (800) 573-3332, www.ri.org

* Salvation Army, (800) SAL-ARMY (725-2769)

* World Relief, (800) 535-5433

Source: Associated Press

Riccardi and Meyer reported from New Orleans and Powers from Baton Rouge, La. Times staff writers Stephen Braun and Edwin Chen in Washington, Ralph Vartabedian in New Orleans and Lianne Hart in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.

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