WASHINGTON – Federal engineers trying to stop New Orleans flooding were unsure who was in charge of fixing the levees amid the confusion of Hurricane Katrina, according to interviews with congressional investigators released Thursday by a Senate panel.
In a Nov. 15 interview with investigators, Army Corps of Engineers Col. Richard P. Wagenaar recounted an instance after Katrina hit when federal workers attempted to fill in the breached London Avenue canal and were told to stop.
That led to a discussion of "who is in charge?" Wagenaar said.
"I mean, where's the parish president? Where is the mayor? And then the state, well they work for DOTD," Wagenaar said in the interview, referring to the Louisiana's Department of Transportation and Development.
"At some point, you know, you've got to make some stuff happen. Because this was a bad situation," he said.
At Thursday's hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, lawmakers questioned whether officials at all levels of government — federal, state, and local — should share in some blame.
"All of you didn't do the job that you were supposed to be doing," said Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio.
The interviews, combined with Thursday's testimony, indicate vast confusion about who was ultimately responsible for the levees.
Regulations show that the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for building levees and conducting annual inspections, and the state is charged with training and overseeing New Orleans levee district officials.
The Orleans Levee District, headed by a board of politically appointed commissioners, is responsible for day-to-day maintenance and repair of levees — usually by staff engineers. An Aug. 16 work order released by the Senate panel, for example, shows that inspection crews did check the levees but also cut nearby grass and green space.
The former president of the commission described a lax — if festive — inspection process by its appointed members.
"You have commissioners," former president James P. Huey told investigators in a Nov. 29 interview. "They have some news cameras following you around, and all of this stuff. And you have your little beignets, and then you have — you go do the tourist and that and you have a nice lunch somewhere or whatever. They have this stop-off thing or whatever. And that's what the inspections are about."
Asked about other levee inspections that might be more thorough, Huey told investigators: "When you say inspections — and I don't really know and I couldn't even answer to tell you — how do you inspect levees other than if you see seepage?"
Huey resigned from the board in October amid questions about no-bid contracts to his relatives in the days after the Aug. 29 storm.
The Senate hearing came as a House panel considered whether to subpoena the White House to get documents detailing the government's response to Katrina. The chairman of the panel, 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.
Pentagon spokesman Army Maj. Paul Swiergosz said the panel's requests for information have been "very far-reaching and very broad, and we're doing everything we can to answer them as quickly as we can."
"We're going to provide the documents as fast as we can," Swiergosz said. "No one has been dragging their feet on these things."
The House committee, which plans to issue its findings Feb. 15, requested hundreds of thousands of documents more than two months ago from the administration and Gulf Coast state and local officials.