La. Drawing Up Charges for Flood Deaths
By DAVID CRARY,
AP National Writer
1 hour, 30 minutes ago
The arrest of two nursing-home owners in the deaths of 34 people marked the beginning of what prosecutors said Wednesday is a large-scale investigation into whether New Orleans-area hospitals and other institutions neglected their patients during Hurricane Katrina's onslaught.
The Louisiana attorney general's office said all of its investigators have been pulled from other tasks to work on the Medicaid Fraud Unit, the team whose work led to homicide charges Tuesday against the husband-and-wife owners of the flooded-out St. Rita's nursing home in Chalmette.
Kris Wartelle, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Charles Foti, said the office is looking into other allegations of neglect that may have led to injuries or deaths at nursing homes and hospitals.
"Reports are flooding in. It just depends on what's legitimate and what is not," Wartelle said Wednesday.
In Washington, meanwhile, Senate Republicans scuttled an attempt by Sen. Hillary Clinton to establish an independent, bipartisan panel patterned after the 9/11 Commission to investigate what went wrong with federal, state and local governments' response to the hurricane.
Separately, a Senate committee opened a hearing on the disaster, with the panel's Republican chairwoman saying that changes instituted after Sept. 11 in the government's emergency-preparedness failed their first major test during Katrina.
With billions of dollars to boost disaster preparedness at all levels of government, "we would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy," said Sen. Susan Collins (news, bio, voting record), R-Maine. "Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response."
For Louisiana alone, the death toll surged by more than half Tuesday to 423, and the number is certain to climb. Including deaths in four other states, Katrina's overall toll stood at 659.
"Let me caution everyone: We have not done the secondary searches in the areas where the water was the highest. So we still have a lot of work to do, and those numbers probably will go up," Mayor Ray Nagin said.
Authorities said the toll would be lower if nursing-home owners Salvador and Mable Mangano had heeded warnings to evacuate their patients as Katrina came ashore Aug. 29.
"The pathetic thing in this case was that they were asked if they wanted to move them and they did not," Foti said. "They were warned repeatedly that this storm was coming. In effect, their inaction resulted in the deaths of these people."
The Manganos were released on $50,000 bail each; each of the 34 counts against them carries up to five years in prison. Their attorney, Jim Cobb, said his clients were innocent and had waited for a mandatory evacuation order from the officials of St. Bernard Parish that never came.
Cobb said the Manganos were forced to make a difficult decision as Katrina approached: risk the health of the patients — many of them frail and on feeding tubes — in an evacuation, or keep them comfortable at the home through the storm.
Tom Rodrigue, whose mother died in the home, was not satisfied. "She deserved the chance, you know, to be rescued instead of having to drown like a rat," he said.
The attorney general is also investigating the discovery of more than 40 corpses at flooded-out Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. A hospital official said the 106-degree heat inside the hospital as the patients waited for days to be evacuated likely contributed to their deaths.
On Tuesday, President Bush said he took responsibility for the fitful federal response to the devastation. New Orleans' mayor was asked on ABC's "Good Morning America" if he took responsibility for the city's response.
"I'm going to be a man about this. Whatever I did, whatever I could have done better, I'm going to stand up and history will judge me accordingly," Nagin said in an interview broadcast Wednesday.
"But let's make sure that as we analyze what Ray Nagin as mayor did, let's look at what everybody in authority (did) so that this never happens again in this country."
The updated Louisiana death toll was released as Gov. Kathleen Blanco lashed out at the federal government, accusing it of moving too slowly in recovering the bodies. The dead "deserve more respect than they have received," she said.
However, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman David Passey said the state asked to take over body recovery last week. "The collection of bodies is not normally a FEMA responsibility," he said.
Not all the news was grim. The New Orleans airport reopened to commercial flights Tuesday, the port resumed operations far earlier than expected, and Nagin said dry sections of the city — including the French Quarter and central business district — could be reopened as early as Monday, provided the Environmental Protection Agency determines the air is safe to breathe.
"We're bringing New Orleans back," Nagin said. "We're bringing this culture back. We're bringing this music back. I'm tired of hearing these helicopters. I want to hear some jazz."
Government test results released Wednesday said the floodwaters in New Orleans still pose a health risk because of dangerous levels of sewage-related bacteria and toxic chemicals. But air pollutants were found to be at acceptable levels.
Nagin also said Tuesday the city does not have the cash to keep paying its employees and was working "feverishly" with banks and federal officials to secure a line of credit to get the city through the end of the year.
Local authorities have been issuing more passes allowing residents to return to the city for the day to check on their businesses, save vital records and retrieve data from computers — although some people arriving by a highway south of the city had to endure a four-hour wait at a checkpoint.
Nagin hoped other evacuees scattered across the country also would return, despite speculation that some would prefer to settle in their new towns rather than face the chore of rebuilding in New Orleans.
"I know New Orleanians. Once the beignets start cooking up again and the gumbo is in the pots and red beans and rice are served on Monday — in New Orleans, and not where they are — they're going to be back," Nagin said.
The Army Corps of Engineers reported significant progress pumping out flooded areas of New Orleans and neighboring parishes. The pumps are removing more than 9 billion gallons a day, the Corps said.
Col. Duane Gapinski estimated that half of the flooded area or less was still under water, and the city was on target to be almost completely drained by Oct. 8. More than 40 pumping stations were operating, including the city's biggest pump.
"That will change the world as we know it," Nagin said.
The news was more gloomy to the east in St. Bernard Parish, where more than 90 percent of an 17-foot-high levee is damaged and nobody will be allowed to return for four months.
"I think about 95 percent of the parish was under water. I would say it's pretty well destroyed," said Col. Richard Baumy of the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office. "You've got to see it to believe it."
Dan Packer, chief executive of Entergy New Orleans, said the company had restored power to 75 percent of the 1.1 million customers who were out at the height of the storm, mostly in Mississippi and areas of Louisiana north and west of New Orleans.
Packer said about 264,000 customers were without power Tuesday afternoon, largely in the metro New Orleans area. He said all of the central business district and French Quarter should have power back within two weeks.
Associated Press writers Adam Nossiter, Brett Martel, Cain Burdeau, Mary Foster and Lisa Meyer contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press.