NEW ORLEANS – Facing a torrent of criticism over the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Mike Brown resigned Monday as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and President Bush, while touring New Orleans, rejected charges that racism was to blame for problems with disaster relief.
As the Gulf Coast took more steps toward recovery, New Orleans police began using force to get the last holdout residents out of the city.
Brown’s resignation caused little surprise, coming three days after the president had relieved him of duties in the hurricane zone and sent him home. Named as acting FEMA director was R. David Paulison, former head of the agency’s emergency preparedness force who – unlike Brown – has lengthy experience in emergency response.
The Bush administration’s moves came on a day when the death toll rose to 515 and there were fresh reminders of Katrina’s devastation. Officials announced that more than 40 bodies had been found in a flooded hospital in the Uptown area of New Orleans.
Bush, in his third personal visit to the region since the hurricane hit two weeks ago, toured sites in New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss.
Asked by a reporter about the “racial component” – whether poor and black residents who waited days for help were the victims of racism – the president issued a firm denial.
“The storm didn’t discriminate and neither will the recovery effort,” he said. “When those Coast Guard choppers, many of whom were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn’t check the color of a person’s skin. They wanted to save lives.”
Many African Americans believe differently, according to a poll taken last week by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. While only 26 percent of whites said the government response would have been faster if most of the victims had been white, 66 percent of blacks believed that.
While the vast majority of residents have been evacuated from New Orleans, a few thousands holdouts are believed to remain, many of them senior citizens in failing health.
“There’s a lot of old people out in the neighborhoods who have no family outside of New Orleans,” said Capt. John Bryson of the New Orleans police. “Some have resorted to drinking the filthy water, others have been off their medications for days and are delirious. We’re getting them out.”
A forced evacuation order had been in effect since last week, but police and soldiers had taken a soft line – until now.
“People drinking that water – it’s going to kill them,” Bryson said. “Since they don’t have a constitutional right to kill themselves, we’re handcuffing them and getting them out.”
One of the lightning rods for criticism of the relief effort was FEMA’s Brown, who said Monday he was quitting because he didn’t want to be a distraction.
“The focus has got to be on FEMA, what the people are trying to do down there,” Brown told the Associated Press.
Brown’s replacement, Paulison, has led the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of FEMA, since December 2001, according to FEMA’s Web site. He is a career firefighter from Miami.
The president’s hurricane-seasoned brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said he recommended Paulison as head of FEMA’s emergency preparedness force but did not take part in the vetting for the appointment of an acting FEMA director.
Paulison’s credentials are in sharp contrast to those of Brown and some others running FEMA. The Chicago Tribune reported last week that top FEMA officials had strong political connections but little or no emergency experience before getting their jobs.
Bush has come under criticism for his support of Brown, including his remark during his first visit to the region: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
(In Gulfport, Miss., Bush refused to play what the administration has labeled “the blame game.”
“There will be plenty of time to figure out what went wrong and what went right,” said Bush, standing outside a one-story brick elementary school where teams of Mexican and American soldiers were hauling away debris.
In both Louisiana and Mississippi, Bush promised the federal government will help with the rebuilding.
About 660,000 households have received cash payments of $2,000 apiece from the federal government, according to the White House. And as emergency experts start focusing on their most important needs now – temporary housing, the rebuilding of public roads and other facilities, health care and eradication of mosquitoes – C-130 military aircraft are spraying about 120,000 acres a day against mosquitoes.
In downtown New Orleans, the president took a nearly hourlong tour of trash-strewn streets. Bush, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin rode side by side, standing in the open back of a light mobile tactical vehicle, the third in a caravan of four military trucks.
On a street corner, Bush addressed questions about alleged racism and about whether the war in Iraq meant that there was a shortage of troops to help hurricane victims.
“It’s preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant that there wasn’t enough troops here. Just pure and simple,” he said.
As the floodwaters went down, new horrors were being uncovered.
The exact body count was unclear at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood. Bob Johannesen, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Hospitals, said 45 bodies had been found. Dave Goodson, assistant administrator at the hospital, said 44 were found inside the hospital and three on the hospital grounds.
Dr. Jeffrey Kochan, a Philadelphia radiologist who is a volunteer, told the AP that he spoke with the recovery team late Sunday after it discovered 36 bodies floating on the first floor.
“They’re seeing things no human being should have to see,” Kochan said.
Harry Anderson, a spokesman for Tenet Healthcare Corp., which owns the hospital and others in the Gulf Coast region, said it would be wrong to assume that all those who died were storm victims.
Anderson said several bodies were in the hospital’s morgue before the storm hit, and that afterwards, some critically ill patients died “through what would have been a normal end-of-life process.” Others succumbed to adverse conditions in the hospital – temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, no running water, poor sanitation and no power, he said.