A ranking Louisiana health official turned down federal offers to help move or evacuate patients as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, a newly released document shows.
But the state's top medical officer said Louisiana coordinated with the federal Health and Human Services Department in evacuating hospitals and nursing homes after Katrina hit.
Two days before the Aug. 29 storm, HHS was told by the state's health emergency preparedness director that the help was not needed, according to an e-mail released Monday by a Senate panel investigating the government's response to Katrina.
The state official, identified in the Aug. 27 e-mail as Dr. Roseanne Pratts, "responded no, that they do not require anything at this time and they would be in touch if and when they needed assistance," wrote HHS senior policy analyst Erin Fowler.
But in an interview Monday night, Louisiana Medical Director Dr. Jimmy Guidry said HHS was helping state health officials plan for evacuating hospitals and nursing homes by the eve of the storm. The federal department also stayed after Katrina hit to help the state coordinate transportation assets, like ambulances and military vehicles, Guidry said.
"They sent people to help us out," Guidry said of HHS officials in Louisiana. "They helped us get all those assets lined up."
At the time of the HHS e-mail, Guidry said, the state was still weighing "what the needs would be" for patient safety — including for those whom officials initially did not want to move for fear of worsening their conditions. "At that point in time there was no request as to any kind of evacuation," Guidry said.
Pratts is one of Guidry's top employees.
At least 40 bodies, many of them elderly patients, were found inside a flooded New Orleans hospital after Katrina hit. Thirty-four patients at a nursing home near New Orleans died Aug. 29 in the wake of massive flooding brought by the storm's surge. The nursing home's owners have since been charged with negligent homicide for failing to evacuate the patients.
The e-mail was released by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating the government's response to Katrina.
The committee also released a Senate interview of Louisiana Transportation Secretary Johnny Bradberry, during which he told investigators "we have done nothing to fulfill this responsibility" of ensuring evacuation plans are in place for at-risk populations.
"We put no plans in place to do any of this," Bradberry said in the Dec. 21 interview, 12 pages of which were released by the Senate committee.
Sen. Susan Collins (news, bio, voting record), R-Maine, chairwoman of the panel, called the documents "disturbing findings that our investigation will examine very closely." The committee is scheduled to examine evacuation procedures in a hearing Tuesday.
The Senate panel is expected to issue its findings in mid-March. A separate House committee is concluding its own investigation, with a report due Feb. 15.