House Republicans began their inquiry Thursday into the government’s “largely abysmal” response to Hurricane Katrina as federal authorities prepared for another big storm threatening the Gulf Coast.
Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the Republican leading the review, pledged “to investigate aggressively what went wrong and what went right” with federal emergency aid after Katrina.
“Even armed with solid, advance information on Katrina’s severity, the response of local, state, and federal officials was largely abysmal,” he said.
Democrats, who are seeking an independent panel to investigate the response, have refused to participate in what House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., intended to be a bipartisan committee.
Nevertheless, two Democrats whose home states were crushed by Katrina — Reps. Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Charlie Melancon of Louisiana — attended the hearing.
“People of the Gulf Coast deserve a sober assessment of what went right and what went wrong,” Melancon said.
The hearing came as the Pentagon and other federal agencies geared up for Hurricane Rita, reflecting Washington’s efforts to avoid criticism that it once again was too slow to respond to impending disaster.
Planning in advance this time around
Lt. Gen. Robert Clark, commander of The 5th Army, was tapped Thursday to head the military task force for Hurricane Rita, expected to strike the Texas coast by early Saturday. By contrast, Gen. Russel Honore was named to head the military task force for Katrina a day after that storm hit the Gulf Coast.
The military also began moving communications teams equipped with satellite phones and radios into Texas, days ahead of similar moves during the Katrina disaster. Some 600-800 National Guard troops from Florida and up to 450 from Illinois were preparing to deploy to Texas. Navy ships are in the Gulf Coast region waiting to move in behind the storm, and 26 helicopters were being sent in to aid with search and rescue and medical evacuations.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to compare the timing of the military response for Rita to the one for the previous storm.
The Bush administration Wednesday declared Hurricane Rita an “incident of national significance,” officially releasing a massive federal response to the destruction now expected to exceed state and local capabilities.
Such a federal designation for Katrina was not triggered until a day after that storm hit Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi three weeks ago.
Even before the declaration, the government was rushing hospital beds, rescue teams and evacuation buses to Texas to prepare for Rita. President Bush, pledging to be “ready for the worst,” on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in Texas and Louisiana, and pleaded with people to comply with mandatory evacuation orders issued by local officials.
“We want to make sure we’re ready,” R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said. “We’d rather preposition more assets than we need than not have enough.”
1,200 emergency personnel in Texas
FEMA sent nearly 1,200 medical and rescue personnel into Texas, and asked the Pentagon to send 2,500 hospital beds to potential disaster zones in Louisiana and Texas. The agency also directed the Transportation Department to send 200 buses to Texas to help move residents out of harm’s way.
Officials said rescue teams and supplies already in Louisiana to deal with Katrina would remain to respond to Rita.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has activated some 5,000 National Guard troops.
Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said an additional 1,300 National Guardsmen from Texas were returning from Louisiana. He said some active duty troops were involved in preparations.
Some military bases in Texas were being evacuated, and ships and aircraft were being moved to avoid the storm.
Additionally, Coast Guard Adm. Larry Hereth was overseeing the federal preparedness and response efforts in the region. Communications problems plagued the Katrina response, but Hereth said Thursday that federal officials were working closely with Texas to avoid that.
“We’re tightly wired,” Hereth told CBS’ “The Early Show.”