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It was haves vs. have-nots in Katrina evacuation

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" says the government will have to answer some tough questions following the chaos of Katrina.

MSNBC: Tim, there are people in New Orleans shooting at helicopters trying to deliver supplies and evacuate patients, people shooting at rescue boats. The mayor of New Orleans says the federal government doesn’t have a clue about what is going on in his town. There seems to be no one in charge in New Orleans. What’s the problem?

Tim Russert: It’s a question that our country is going to have to look inside its soul and answer. The fact is, those who were well off were able to evacuate the city and those who were poor stayed behind. And those who are suffering and those who are dying are those very same poor people.

It’s just unbelievable. The world is watching the United States of America this week. And we’re watching ourselves.

I think the response across the country has been universal and uniform. After Sept. 11, I think people realized we’d been attacked by an outside enemy and we were not in a position to be criticizing our own government. 

That’s not the case with this crisis. The Washington Times — a conservative paper — and the Manchester Union Leader up in New Hampshire both just absolutely denouncing the response of the federal government, state government, local government. They are basically saying the government has one function and that’s’ to protect the citizens and it hasn’t happened this week in New Orleans.

I think liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are just absolutely outraged and confused at the scenes we’re watching on TV.  And the world is watching. 

Why are we apparently incapable of rescuing people and in the process of witnessing an American city being lost?

MSNBC:  This seems especially troubling to some, when America was able to offer aid to victims of the tsunami, a half a world away, but seemingly can’t do it in one of its own cities.

Russert: And it’s not as if we didn’t know this was coming. There were studies after studies.  There were tests after tests.  As recently as a year ago there was a tabletop disaster scenario played out as to what would happen to New Orleans in a major hurricane.  And the results of those studies have now been proven to be true.

So the questions that have to be asked are:

Why weren’t the poor people evacuated? They don’t have SUVs. They travel by public bus.  Could they have been evacuated?

Secondly, in terms of pre-positioning, where were the troops, where were the National Guard?  If people were to be sent to the Superdome, why weren’t there cots and water and food there?

Second-guessing is easy, but it is also, I think, a requirement of those in a free society to challenge their government, when the primary function of the government is to protect its citizens and they haven’t been protected.

MSNBC: Many National Guard troops have arrived now in New Orleans, and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanca says, “They know how to shoot and kill. They’re more than willing to do so and I expect they will.”  A statement that exemplifies what kind of a chaotic police state situation exists there.

Russert:  By Sunday they say there’ll be 30,000 National Guard and troops on the street, which gives you an indication of just how perilous it is.

But the fact is that, when there was now evacuation and no pre-positioning of supplies within the city, that led to the current situation.

President George W. Bush said the other day that no one expected the levees to break.

Well, with all respect, study after study, including FEMA's own tabletop exercises last year, all included the breaking or the giving of the levees.  Everyone who had studied the issue knew that with a Category 3, 4 or 5 storm, that was a very strong likelihood.

So, again, it’s very difficult in the midst of a crisis for people to be critical, but I have not talked to anybody, underscore anybody, in official Washington who believes the government at any level has done a good job.

MSNBC:  Can we expect that to be the overriding story on "Meet the Press" this Sunday?

Russert: It has to be. We are losing an American city. It’s historic. Some would even say biblical in its proportions.

We’ll talk to the United States Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and then state and local representatives from Mississippi and Louisiana. There are a lot of tough questions to be asked about who we are as a country and deep fault lines, as we look inside ourselves as to why some people were saved and why some were left to die. 

We’re not second-guessing; we’re trying to get some answers as to what has created the misery we are witnessing on our TV screens, Sunday, on Meet the Press.