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E-mail, memos detail Katrina’s political storm

As Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, a series of letters passed between the governor and the White House that reveal delays, claims that requests for federal help weren't received, and concerns on both sides about public relations.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As Hurricane Katrina roared ashore and thousands of people waited days amid the floodwater for rescue, a series of letters passed between the governor and the White House that reveal delays, claims that requests for federal help weren’t received, and concerns on both sides about public relations.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco late Friday released 100,000 pages of memos, handwritten notes, e-mails, phone logs and other documents requested by congressional committees that are now investigating what happened behind the scenes in the frantic days surrounding the deadly Aug. 29 storm.

Among those documents are the back-and-forth communications between Blanco’s office and the White House, starting with a letter Blanco sent President Bush a day before the hurricane hit.

“I have determined that this incident will be of such severity and magnitude that effective response will be beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments and that supplementary federal assistance will be necessary,” Blanco wrote.

Three days after the storm, Blanco wrote Bush asking that the 256th Louisiana National Guard Brigade be sent home from Iraq to help. The governor also asked for more generators, medicine, health care workers and mortuaries.

Five days later, Bush assistant Maggie Grant e-mailed Blanco aide Paine Gowen to say that the White House did not receive the letter.

“We found it on the governor’s Web site but we need ‘an original,’ for our staff secretary to formally process the requests she is making,” Grant wrote. “We are on the job but appreciate your help with a technical request. Tnx!”

Timeline trail
The stack of documents also includes a timeline put together by Blanco’s staff detailing the state response; notes expressing frustration about missing items such as a communications center for police and rescuers promised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and police reports, including logs of calls from people trapped amid the floodwater. Other documents show how Blanco’s aids were inundated with requests from celebrities and dignitaries wanting to visit the city.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Saturday that she hadn’t seen the documents.

“There are many reviews underway to look back and review how the events unfolded during that week and all levels of government have to take stock of what happened, act on that and make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” Perino said.

Other exchanges between the governor’s staff and the White House show public relations was a priority for both administrations.

Grant, Bush’s aide, e-mailed Gowen Sep. 13 asking if Blanco would be attending a Washington, D.C., service marking the president’s “National Day of Prayer.” If she didn’t, Grant wrote, “We’d love to have someone like (Homeland Security) Secretary (Michael) Chertoff attend a service with her.”

For the state’s part, Blanco’s chief of staff Andy Kopplin e-mailed employees Sept. 4 saying they needed to get national supporters to say “that the federal response was anemic” and asked them to point out budget cuts to levee programs.

While Blanco’s office wanted to blame the federal government, the documents show that her staff didn’t want it to appear as if the federal government was seizing state power.

When Bush visited New Orleans on Sept. 5 Blanco was initially supposed to visit evacuees in Houston, but Blanco spokeswoman Denise Bottcher didn’t like the idea of Bush being in the state when the governor wasn’t. “Reinforces the notion that she’s not in charge and LA needs to be federalized,” she e-mailed Kopplin.

Blanco’s communication’s director Bob Mann agreed, the documents show, and Blanco stayed to meet Bush.

The Democratic governor’s staff also griped that Republicans were attacking Blanco. “Rove is on the prowl,” says one unexplained Sept. 3 message from Kopplin to Mann, a reference to Bush adviser Karl Rove.