Blanco Faces Tough Questions Over Katrina Response

Senators needled Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco on Thursday over state evacuation plans that left sick and elderly patients in nursing homes as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast.

"How can you say this morning, 'We did the best we can?"' Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, demanded at the hearing in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"The majority of nursing homes did not evacuate, and people died because of it," Collins said.

Added Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii: "I've been thinking about the Gulf Coast residents who could not take care of themselves. I was stunned by news footage of those being left behind in nursing homes and hospitals."

At issue was earlier testimony by Louisiana's transportation secretary who told Senate investigators that "we have done nothing to fulfill this responsibility" of ensuring evacuation plans are in place for at-risk populations.

At least 40 bodies, many of them elderly patients, were found inside a flooded New Orleans hospital after Katrina hit. Additionally, 34 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.

Blanco, appearing with Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, said "that will never happen again." But she outlined pre-Katrina concerns about moving frail patients, saying that evacuating them "can cause us to lose lives."

Still, "the nursing homes all had evacuation plans that they were expected to follow," Blanco said. "And if they didn't follow them, they were expected to ask for assistance."

At one point, Barbour tried to help his fellow governor, noting that evacuating vulnerable patients is risky. But, he said, "we just make them evacuate."

"It was obviously the right risk in the case of Katrina," Barbour said. "Same thing with hospitals."