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:
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.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the committee, said the response to Katrina "has shaken the public's confidence in the ability of government at all levels to protect them in a crisis."
Lawmakers said they did not ask officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Homeland Security Department to appear at the hearing out of fear that would disrupt the ongoing recovery process in the battered Gulf Coast. Instead, a slew of former city and state officials testified about their experiences in facing faced major disasters in their communities.
Authorities say the Manganos failed to heed warnings to evacuate their nursing home patients as Katrina came ashore Aug. 29.
"They are in low land. They had evacuated before. They knew they should have evacuated. They should have used their evacuation plan and moved those patients to safety," Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti said Wednesday on CBS News' The Early Show.
They also turned down an offer from St. Bernard Parish officials who asked if the nursing home wanted help evacuating, he said.
"They were given the opportunity to move. They also had a contract with an ambulance to move the patients. They did not move the patients. And that resulted in a loss of 34 lives," Foti told co-anchor Harry Smith. "These are patients that are in wheelchairs, walkers, and cannot take this type of action and they drowned."
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 Fahrenheit heat inside the hospital as the patients waited for days to be evacuated likely contributed to their deaths.