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La. Flood Deaths: Criminal Case

The husband-and-wife owners of a New Orleans-area nursing home where 34 people died in Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters were charged Tuesday with negligent homicide.

The case represents the first major prosecution to come out of the disaster in New Orleans.

The owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home in the town of Chalmette "were asked if they wanted to move (the patients). They did not. They were warned repeatedly that this storm was coming. In effect, their inaction resulted in the deaths of these patients," Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti said.

Salvador A. Mangano and his wife, Mable, surrendered and were jailed on 34 counts of negligent homicide. Each count carries up to five years in prison.

The Manganos had an evacuation plan as required under state law and a contract with an ambulance service to evacuate the patients, but they did not call the company, Foti said. They also turned down an offer from St. Bernard Parish officials who asked if the nursing home wanted help evacuating, he said.

Foti said the bodies have not all been identified and he was not sure how many of the victims were patients or staff.

Only a day before the Manganos were charged, officials disclosed yesterday that 44 elderly people had died in flooded hospital that was supposed to be evacuated. CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan

The attorney general said he is also investigating that hospital.

In other news, President Bush Tuesday took responsibility for government failures in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and said the disaster raised broader questions about the government's ability to respond to natural disasters as well as terror attacks.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government," Mr. Bush said at joint White House news conference with the president of Iraq. "And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

More grim news came Tuesday, as Hurricane Katrina's death toll in Louisiana climbed to 423 Tuesday, up from 279 a day before, the state Health Department said.

The jump came as recovery workers turned more and more of their attention to gathering up and counting the corpses in a city all but cleared out of the living.

How high the death toll might go is unclear.

Mayor Ray Nagin said earlier this month that Louisiana could have 10,000 dead. But a street-by-street sweep of the city last week yielded far fewer bodies than feared, and authorities said the death toll could be well below the dire projections.

Up until the past few days, authorities were slow to release numbers, saying they were concentrating on rescuing the living first. Rescuers reported pushing corpses aside, or tying them down to banisters or roofs for workers to collect later.

In other developments:

  • The new acting head of FEMA, R. David Paulison, pledged Tuesday to intensify efforts to finding more permanent housing for the tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors now in shelters. "We're going to get people out of the shelters, we're going to move on and get them the help they need," he said. Paulison has three decades of firefighting experience and a background in emergency management.
  • The New Orleans airport reopened on a limited basis Tuesday, reports CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts, with three passenger flights arriving and three departing each day. But Pitts reported that Tuesday's flights were mostly empty.
  • Pitts also reports that engineers are pumping out 6.5 billion gallons of floodwater everyday and estimate that the city should dry out by mid-October. Also, Mayor Ray Nagin said that some residents could be allowed in the city as early as Monday.

  • Mississippi landlords were being told strongly that they can't evict people just to rent to someone else for more money, reports CBS News Correspondent Lee Frank. With tens of thousands of people having no place left to live, county judges are trying to make sure renters are not pushed out.
  • The port of New Orleans expected the arrival late Tuesday of its first cargo ship since the hurricane, and at least three more ships by week's end, said Gary LaGrange, port president and chief executive. The arriving ship was carrying up to 500 containers of coffee and wood products from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, LaGrange said.

    Mr. Bush's admission comes just days after accusing the news media and critics of the administration storm response of "playing the blame game," reports CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer.

    "I want to know what went right and what went wrong," the president said. "I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question that you asked, 'Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm?'"

    Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the relief operation was entering a new phase.

    Initially, he said, the most important priority was evacuating people, getting them to safety, providing food, water and medical care.

    "Now we have to reconstitute the communities that have been devastated," Chertoff added.

    He said the federal government would look increasingly to state and local officials for guidance on rebuilding the devastated communities along the Gulf Coast.

    "The federal government can't drive permanent solutions down the throats of state and local officials," Chertoff said. "I don't think anyone should envision a situation in which they're going to take a back seat. They're going to take a front seat," he said.

    Chertoff said that teams of federal auditors were being dispatched to the stricken areas to make sure that billions of dollars worth of government contracts were being properly spent.

    "We want to get aid to the people who need it quickly ... but we have a responsibility as stewards of the public money," Chertoff said.

    "We're going to cut through red tape," he said, "but we're not going to cut through laws and rules that govern ethics."

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