Video: One man’s voice

By Hoda Kotb Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 9/5/2005 10:07:39 PM ET 2005-09-06T02:07:39

Jefferson Parish is home to about half-million people, and bordering New Orleans on the west. And residents there have known Aaron Broussard for decades as a southern gentleman.

But in the past week they’ve seen a different side of him: A community leader who is mild-mannered, but who also wears his heart on his sleeve.

On Sunday, America met 56-year-old Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard in an extraordinary display of raw emotion on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when he talked about a colleague whose mother was trapped in a nursing home awaiting rescue.

The man he was talking about is Thomas Rodrigue, who told “Dateline” that his 92-year-old mother was one of 32 elderly people found dead at the St. Rita’s nursing home.

The fury of hurricane Katrina a week ago also unleashed a fury within Broussard, one of the local leaders most in the eye of the storm. “This anger comes from watching death,” he says.

The parish president has charged that the federal government has been hopelessly incompetent in how it handled the relief efforts.

Deeply religious, a Democrat, and an attorney by profession, he used to choose his words carefully. He was a school board president, a city councilman, and a mayor— but in this past week he has opened up his own personal floodgate of contempt spewing it directly at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"FEMA comes in here without warning and they cut our emergency communications line and hooked up their own," he says. "They shut off our emergency lines for our law enforcement people. This is the kind of foolishness. This must be Mickey Mouse.  I never met the guy, but I know his name.  It’s whatever— Mickey Mouse. That’s who’s running this,” he says.

One thing that has him livid is this scene that played out in his parish: thousand of survivors without adequate food, water, and the basic necessities. He’s so disgusted he thought it might be better if his stricken community had been a foreign country.

One local hospital, East Jeffersoner General, has been up and running the entire time with low supplies. They only got a call from FEMA yesterday. “That lack of communication caused us to have to make our own decisions, which we did to keep going,” says Dr. Mark Peters.

It’s not just the lack of coordination and supplies that’s frustrating— all you have to do is tour around the parish to see. But you might have to do it by boat. About a week after the hurricane hit, huge swaths are still under water. Broussard says he’s still not getting the help he needs.

In fact, about a third of his parish was submerged. Local firefighters had little outside help as the searched for survivors door to door.

And even if some people are still alive in these homes, Broussard fears the toll will be staggering.  “I am going to give you a number, that I believe in my heart, that’s probably going to be a real number of the area: I think we have lost over 20,000 people in the greater New Orleans area,” he says.  “We have not yet begun to find all of our dead.  I am not even looking for my dead right now, I can’t. There are trees that have crushed houses where old people live.”

No one knows for sure. What is for sure is that Aaron Broussard is at the end of his rope. “If I was a gas tank, I’m running on fumes,” he says.

On Monday, there were a couple of bright spots: Some residents were allowed see their houses and pack up essentials. And in some spots, the power is back on. And even Broussard acknowledged that federal relief efforts are on the move, although he still believes that slow federal response may have cost lives.

“This country’s leadership— from the top— every agency involved connected with emergency management let us down.  Not only did they “let us down,” that sounds like a disappointment. They abandoned us.  I mean, this is America.  Where is my country?”

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