WASHINGTON – A House committee investigating the government's response to Hurricane Katrina issued a subpoena Wednesday to force Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to turn over documents but stopped short of sending a similar legal demand to the White House.
The subpoena commands Rumsfeld to produce internal records and communications about the Pentagon's response to the Aug. 29 storm, including efforts to send supplies to victims, stabilize public safety and mobilize active duty forces in the Gulf Coast. It requires the Pentagon to deliver the documents, spanning from Aug. 23 to Sept. 15, from Rumsfeld and eight other top military officials by Dec. 30.
Separately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would comply with a judge's ruling that FEMA keep paying for hotel rooms for hurricane evacuees until Feb. 7. The agency also agreed to extend the program for eligible storm victims who have not been helped by that deadline.
The subpoenas were one focus of a House hearing that was marked by angry bars between Gov. Kathleen Blanco, D-La., and Republicans who challenged her about why a mandatory evacuation for New Orleans was not ordered until the morning before Katrina hit. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for coastal parishes south and east of New Orleans before then.
"We had mandatory evacuations," Blanco said. "We got 1.2 million people out. We ended up saving another 100,000 people and we lost 1,100. That's the whole story. We got people out."
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said Blanco's explanation was "a story that's not acceptable because 1,100 people is one half of the men and women we have lost in Operation Iraqi Freedom."
"You lost that many on one day," Miller said.
Shot back Blanco: "Then it's not acceptable for us to lose ... soldiers, either."
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., asked Blanco why New Orleans' emergency management and evacuation plans were not followed.
"It's detailed," Rogers said of the plan. "All it needed was for the mayor and/or the governor to say 'Let's go."'
"We did that, sir. Don't pretend that we didn't do that," Blanco responded tersely.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said they were frustrated by the administration's failures to provide the House investigation with internal memos, e-mails and other documents before and after the storm hit.
The chairman of the special House committee rejected, for now, legal action against the White House, but left open the possibility of a future subpoena. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., asked lawmakers to wait until after a private briefing Thursday at the White House before deciding whether to go ahead with a subpoena.
"We cannot do our job if we don't get these documents, and we won't get these documents if we don't subpoena them," said Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La.
The committee, which plans to issue its findings on Feb. 15, has requested hundreds of thousands of documents more than two months ago from the administration and Gulf Coast state and local officials.
Louisiana has handed over more than 100,000 documents to the committee. Though the White House said it has provided 450,000 documents, lawmakers said it has claimed executive privilege to refuse e-mails sent to and from White House chief of staff Andrew Card.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said lawmakers would be briefed by a high-level administration official and that he did not immediately anticipate a subpoena against the White House.
"I'm not expecting anything of that nature at this point," McClellan said. "What we have done is work to make sure that they get the information they need to do their job. We've worked in good faith."
The hearing came as FEMA pledged to continue paying for hotel rooms for evacuees still unable to find apartments, trailers or other stable housing by Feb. 7, a month beyond the agency's cutoff date.
A federal judge in New Orleans this week set the February deadline in a ruling to give victims more time in hotels as FEMA processes aid applications.
FEMA's acting director, R. David Paulison, did not cite an end-date for the hotel payments, but said "it won't be indefinite." He said FEMA will pay hotel bills for up to two weeks after evacuees receive temporary housing assistance because "sometimes it's tough to find an apartment."
An estimated 40,000 families still are living in hotels, compared with a peak of 85,000 two months weeks ago.
"We are going to be flexible, we will make changes to our plan as we move along," Paulison said. "And we are going to continuously work to make sure nobody falls through the cracks. And if they do fall through the cracks, we are going to find them, locate them and get them back into our system."