In New Orleans officials have begun house-to-house searches looking for survivors from last week’s devastating Hurricane Katrina. Over the weekend tens of thousands of city residents were evacuated including everyone staying at the Superdome and Convention Center.
But the death toll is expected to reach into the thousands. Louisiana Senator David Vitter said 10,000 people might have died in Louisiana alone. Rooftop rescues continue. On Saturday alone law enforcement agencies fielded about 1,000 distress 911 calls from people still trapped in attics of buildings surrounded by water. 500,000 people have now been displaced from their homes. 20 states have opened up shelters, homes and schools to those who have evacuated from the Gulf region.
Meanwhile calls are increasing for heads to roll within the Bush administration over the federal government’s slow response to the disaster. On Sunday the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans published an open letter to President Bush calling for the firing of Michael Brown, the director at FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — as well every other top official at the agency. The paper wrote, “Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.” Despite the widespread criticism, President Bush publicly praised Brown on Friday during his visit to the region. The President said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
On Sunday Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and accused the federal government of abandoning the people of New Orleans. He broke down crying, as he recalled how the mother of one of his colleagues died after waiting days to be rescued. He also said that FEMA turned away trucks from Wal-Mart loaded with water and that FEMA prevented the Coast Guard from delivering 1000 gallons of fuel.
In Washington, the Bush White House has responded to the mounting criticism by trying to shift the blame to local and state officials in Louisiana. According to the New York Times, this is part of a coordinated public relations campaign led by President Bush’s chief advisor Karl Rove. The Times reports that in many ways, the unfolding PR campaign reflects the style Rove has brought to the political campaigns he has run for Bush. Meanwhile the Washington Post has been forced to print a retraction after it published as fact a claim sourced to a “senior Bush official” that the relief effort was delayed in part because Louisiana’s Democratic Governor — Kathleen Blanco never declared a state of emergency. In fact Blanco did just that — four days before the hurricane hit.
Several top officials were sent to the devastated area over the weekend including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Bush is returning to the region today. Rice had been on vacationing in New York up until Thursday. The Daily News reported she saw the Monty Python play Spamalot on Broadway, took tennis lessons with Monica Seles and went shoe shopping on Fifth Avenue. The shopping experience didn’t go quite as planned — a fellow shopper shouted at her “How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!” That shopper was then removed from the store. Vice President Dick Cheney has also ended his vacation. He had stayed in Wyoming all of last week.
The White House has also been forced to defend charges that the rescue effort would have been much quicker if New Orleans had not been a predominantly African-American city. On Friday, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus Elijah Cummings said it should not be “that the differences between those who live and those who die are poverty and skin color.” That same night one of the biggest names in hip-hop, Kanye West, appeared during a fundraiser on NBC. He broke from the pre-written script and said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” NBC censored West’s comments from the West Coast broadcast of the telethon. ?On the following day, Condoleezza Rice — the Bush administration’s highest ranking African-American — said “I don’t believe for a minute anybody allowed people to suffer because they are African-Americans. I just don’t believe it for a minute.” She added: “Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unintended on the basis of race.”
Meanwhile some National Guard officials compared the efforts in New Orleans to U.S. military operations in Africa. Gary Jones, the commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force told Army Times on Friday, “This place is going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
On Sunday, police shot dead five men walking across a New Orleans. Details are sketchy, but police say the men had opened fire on contractors working for Army Corps Engineers.
Concerns are also growing over the long-term environmental affects. Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff is describing the hurricane as ” probably the greatest environmental mess we’ve ever seen in this country.” A major oil spill has been spotted near the Louisiana town of Venice on the Mississippi River. But cleanup crews have been unable to reach the spill. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said a flyover revealed a leak from tanks capable of holding 85,000 barrels of fuel.
And Dick Cheney’s former company Halliburton is back in the news. The company has been hired to help rebuild naval and Marine facilities on the Gulf Coast that were damaged during the hurricane.
President Bush has nominated Judge John Roberts to succeed the late William Rehnquist as chief justice of the Supreme Court. The 50-year-old Roberts is currently serving as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. President Bush’s announcement comes just two days after Rehnquist died in his Virginia home at the age of 80. He had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer a year ago. President Nixon appointed Rehnquist to the court in 1972. He had served as Chief Justice since 1986 and oversaw the court’s shift to the right. The Court now has two vacancies for the first time in over 30 years. In July, President Bush had nominated Roberts to fill Sandra Day O”Connor”s seat. His Senate nomination hearings had been scheduled to open on Tuesday. But it is not clear if the hearings will now be postponed. Democrats had been calling for the Roberts hearings to be postponed on account of the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Hurricane Katrina. Chief Justice Rehnquist’s body will lie in repose at the Supreme Court Tuesday and Wednesday before a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday.