Bush Takes Blame For Slow Katrina Response; Nursing-Home Owners Charged

President will address the nation Thursday; criminal charges filed for 34 presumed drownings.

After weeks of asking people to avoid pointing fingers of blame for the slow response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush took the uncharacteristic move of pointing to himself on Tuesday.

“Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility,” Bush said during a White House news conference.

As he prepared for a primetime address to the nation from Louisiana scheduled for Thursday night, the statement from Bush was as close as the administration has come to admitting mistakes since Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast on August 29.

And, for the president who was given high marks for his quick, assured response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the statement was seen as an acknowledgment that in the case of Katrina, the White House was caught flat footed. In the wake of the terror attacks, Bush quickly addressed the nation twice and embraced workers at Ground Zero, but has yet to make a national statement on Katrina and has been faulted for not cutting short his summer vacation to visit the region until several days after the storm hit.

Bush’s admission — which came a day after Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Mike Brown’s resignation (see “Embattled FEMA Boss Michael Brown Resigns” ) — did not soothe Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who criticized FEMA for its failure to retrieve dead bodies from New Orleans in a timely manner. “No one, even those at the highest level, seems to be able to break through the bureaucracy and get this important mission done,” Blanco said.  “In death, as in life, our people deserve more respect than they have received.”

In the wake of the storm, polls show the president’s approval rating at the lowest point in his presidency. Among the topics being considered for Thursday’s speech, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, are the naming of a high-profile person to oversee the Katrina clean-up, a relocation plan for the tens of thousands of displaced Gulf Coast residents and a national charge to rally around the victims of Katrina emotionally as well as financially.

And the issue of race continues to hover over the Katrina response, according to an ABC-Washington Post poll in which respondents were asked if Bush let race and poverty affect the speed of the government’s response. Seventy-six percent of black and 24 percent of white respondents said “yes.” When asked in the same poll if Bush “cares about black people,” almost 7 in 10 blacks said “no” (see “Kanye West Stands By Critique Of President Bush At $2 Bill Show” ).

Meanwhile, a husband and wife who own a New Orleans-area nursing home where 34 elderly patients are believed to have drowned are the first people to be charged in a major criminal case related to Hurricane Katrina.

Authorities said that if Salvador and Mable Mangano — the owners of St. Rita’s nursing home in Chalmette — had listened to warnings to evacuate their patients, lives could have been spared. “The pathetic thing in this case was that they were asked if they wanted to move them and they did not,” said Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, according to a report by The Associated Press. “They were warned repeatedly that this storm was coming. In effect, their inaction resulted in the deaths of these people.”

With each of the 34 counts of negligent homicide carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison, the Manganos were released on $50,000 bond a piece on Tuesday. The couple’s attorney said his clients, who had waited for a mandatory evacuation order that never came, were innocent. With the storm bearing down, they were faced with the choice of risking the health of their fragile patients or trying to keep them comfortable during the storm, attorney Jim Cobb told the AP.

As floodwaters continued to recede, the death toll in Louisiana nearly doubled in just one day, jumping to 423 and bringing the total in the four impacted states to 659.

News also emerged Tuesday that as his constituents scrambled to save their lives, one congressman was using National Guard resources to look in on his property and haul away belongings, according to ABC News. Eight-term Democratic congressman William Jefferson, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, was allowed to bypass military blockades set up around the city in order to drop in on his New Orleans home five days after Katrina hit.

According to military sources, after Jefferson asked National Guard troops to take him on a tour of the flooded areas of his congressional district, a five-ton military truck and six military police officers were sent for the job. During the tour, a Guardsman told ABC News, Jefferson asked that the truck take him to his home in the affluent uptown neighborhood in his district — which was not part of his initial request.

While soldiers waited on his porch for an hour, Jefferson retrieved belongings. When the military truck got stuck in his lawn, soldiers signaled for aid from a Coast Guard helicopter, which was carrying four rescued New Orleanians. A rescue diver twice attempted to rescue Jefferson, but he refused both times. The helicopter took off after 45 minutes in order to save other stranded flood victims. A second truck was dispatched to bail out the first, and Jefferson and his belongings were dropped off at the Superdome.

Jefferson defended the trip, saying he was checking on his constituents. “I did not seek the use of military assets to help me get around my city,” Jefferson told ABC News. “There was shooting going on. There was sniping going on. They thought I should be escorted by some military guards, both to the convention center and uptown.”

In other Katrina news:

  • Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport reopened to commercial flights Tuesday, and Mayor Ray Nagin said such dry sections of the city as the historic French Quarter and central business district could be reopened as early as Monday if the Environmental Protection Agency says the air is safe to breathe.
  • Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Duane Gapinski estimates that less than half of the flooded city is still under water. With almost 9 billion gallons of water being pumped out per day, New Orleans could be completely drained by October 8.
  • Power has been restored to 75 percent of the 1.1 million customers in Mississippi and Louisiana who’ve been in the dark since the storm hit, with around 264,000 — mostly in downtown New Orleans — still waiting for the lights to come back on.

To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV’s hurricane relief page.

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