Katrina Response Takes More Hits

Chinook helicopter lowers large sandbags onto levee, New Orleans, Louisiana, 9-13-05
Post-Sept. 11 changes to improve the government's response to catastrophic disasters failed their first major test in Hurricane Katrina's wake, the Republican chairwoman of a Senate committee said Wednesday.

Despite billions of dollars to boost disaster preparedness at all levels of government, the response to Katrina was plagued by confusion, communication failures and widespread lack of coordination, said Senate Homeland Security Committee chair Susan Collins, R-Maine.

"At this point, we would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy," Collins said. "Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response."

Meanwhile, the husband-and-wife owners of a nursing home are facing homicide charges for not evacuating 34 elderly patients who later died in Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters. The arrests of Salvador and Mable Mangano mark just the beginning of attempts by prosecutors to hold those responsible for the New Orleans tragedy accountable.

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 the arrests Tuesday of the owners of the St. Rita's nursing home in Chalmette. Medicaid is the government's health-care plan for the poor.

In other developments:

  • Even though it's been two weeks since Katrina struck, and the flood of evacuees has made Baton Rouge the state's largest city, CBS News Correspondent Peter King (audio) reports there is still no FEMA disaster center. Thousands of people are living in shelters and hotels. The agency says a center will open in Baton Rouge within the next few days.
  • At least 53 Hurricane Katrina evacuees from the New Orleans area have died since arriving in Texas. Most of the three dozen deaths in the Houston area were from natural causes, but two of the deaths were suicides.
  • The floodwaters in New Orleans still pose a health risk because of dangerous levels of sewage-related bacteria and toxic chemicals, according to government test results released Wednesday. The air quality appears to be all right. However, federal agencies aren't predicting when the city will be habitable again.
  • Continental Airlines plans to resume flights to New Orleans on Monday, and Southwest Airlines says it will announce a startup date in the next few days. American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, still plans to resume service Nov. 1 but could move that date up. The airport reopened to limited service Tuesday.

    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.