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Historian Doug Brinkley on NOLA Nursing Home Deaths

This is a rush transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," August 29, 2007. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated

JOHN KASICH, GUEST HOST: Two years ago, the Category 3 storm battered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, killing nearly 2000 and leaving almost 800,000 homeless. The region is still struggling to recover from the devastation Katrina brought. And today, the entire nation paused to remember.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We ring the bells today for the 1700, 1800 people who have gone onto a better place. We ring the bells for a city that is in recovery. We ring the bells for hope that the promise that was made at Jackson Square will become a reality. We ring the bell for our elderly, those who suffer and continue to try to come home. We rang the bell for our young people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 331, this is 31 Alpha.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hurricane Katrina broke through the levees. It broke a lot of hearts. It destroyed buildings, but it didn't affect the spirit of a lot of citizens.

(SINGING)

CROWD: What so proudly we hail at the twilight's last gleaming.

BUSH: It's a beautiful home. Yes, I know you're excited about it. I bet you are. People are working hard to be able say, “This is my home.” We really appreciate you giving us a chance to come back. I wish you all the very best in your new home. Congratulations.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KASICH: Amidst all the tales of personal suffering and human tragedy, a high-profile legal battle is also unfolding in the Big Easy. Salvador and Mabel Mangano are on trial for negligent homicide in the deaths of 35 residents in their nursing home.

But their defense strategy is to shift blame to federal authorities for failing to secure the levees and state authorities for failing to order mandatory evacuations. Joining us now from Houston, historian Douglas Brinkley, the author of the best-selling book, "The Great Deluge." Douglas, how close is New Orleans to being fixed?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PH.D., HISTORIAN: Well, it's a tale of two cities. There's the sliver by the river, which is the above sea level part of New Orleans. And that's doing pretty well. The port business is about 90 percent back. Tourism's slowly coming back into the French Quarter and the Garden District.

But the below sea level areas, the lower 9th, is struggling, New Orleans East. It's having very hard times. And the bigger worry is the levees. Are they safe to survive a Category 5 storm or even a 3 storm?

Most people say they are not. We have a long, long ways to go. And it would really cost about $40 to $50 billion, the biggest public works project in American history to get those levees ready. We also have the wetlands issue. So their problems are many down in New Orleans on the second anniversary.

KASICH: Douglas, you being a historian, is there anything that's ever happened in our history that had such a black mark against it as the government's inability to get things fixed like this?

BRINKLEY: Well, I think it's — you know, there are people that will complain. There's going to — if you look reconstruction period, people of Atlanta, for example, was burned. And they wanted the federal government to help rebuild the South.

So you do have incidents. But the kind of — the path of destruction that we're dealing with here in Mississippi and Louisiana, it's really still unfathomable to people. It doesn't fit on your TV screen. And the anger is palatable. People are still upset at even just saying the word FEMA or Homeland Security or President Bush.

KASICH: But Douglas...

BRINKLEY: And then you have the problem of corruption.

KASICH: ...here's what I don't understand. This is a total disaster. This is America where this happened. This is not, you know, in Russia, where some, you know, meltdown occurred. This is the United States of America. How is it conceivable that this has not been fixed?

BRINKLEY: We haven't had leadership. You know, if you look at presidential history, you'll see something like TR built the Panama Canal and put aside $230 million for conservation. Or FDR in the New Deal or Eisenhower in the interstate highway system.

President Bush has a policy of inaction. Federal government's view is we have a one trillion dollar debt, we're fighting a war in Iraq, we don't have time for a huge public works project in the Gulf South. There's never been a major czar appointed.

KASICH: Oh, boy.

BRINKLEY: And we've have had a Marshall Plan for Europe, but we can't do a Marshall Plan for the Gulf South apparently. And I'm hoping the 2008 election, people will debate the future of the region.

KASICH: I mean, there is no excuse for government at all levels not fixing this thing. I mean, I'm just so fed up with this, it's ridiculous.

All right, let's talk about this trial. You've got these nursing home operators, who are on trial for negligence and very serious charges that they endangered these people's lives. These people lost their lives, very serious charges.

They say the government is at fault. The government didn't do their job. What do you think about this testimony? Yesterday, they had the governor of New Orleans testify. And they grilled her. Apparently, didn't make much progress. Your take on all these developments surrounding this trial?

BRINKLEY: Well, it's about St. Rita's. And it was a disaster. There are 35 people dead. They should have been evacuated. There's a lot of blame to go around, but a lot of nursing homes evacuated.

This St. Rita's only had one van for about seven, maybe nine people. Yet they had 100 beds, meaning it was impossible. They didn't do their preparatory work in order to evacuate. So there's a reason this has become a major trial. This is a nursing home that wasn't good. And the lesson for people around the country, if you have a loved one and you're putting them in one of these homes, read the fine print. Make sure that these are good facilities, because ones like St. Rita's were atrocious.

KASICH: Douglas, it looks like they're grasping at straws, trying to say, well, you know, the governor didn't do her job or some alderman didn't do their job, therefore you know, we don't really have responsibility here. How do you think this trial is going to come out? Do you think these people will be convicted of negligent homicide?

BRINKLEY: Well, it looks like they're going to be, doesn't it? I mean, their argument is that, you know, well, look, the levees were built by the federal government and the hurricane did not hurt the nursing home. It was the breached levees. So you should blame the federal government.

But the truth of the matter is most nursing home senior centers in Louisiana behave responsible. And this one didn't. And it cost 35 people their lives.

KASICH: Doug, one last question. You have a situation where Mississippi was devastated as well. Does not seem to have these kinds of problems. What is the difference in a nutshell between what's happened in Mississippi under Haley Barbour and what's happened in New Orleans?

BRINKLEY: Mississippi has had much better leadership with Barbour, Lott and Cochran. Also, while it took the brunt of the storm, it didn't have the levee situation that New Orleans has, 350 miles of sub-par built...

KASICH: Got you.

BRINKLEY: ...U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levees. The levees are the difference and political leadership.

KASICH: Douglas, thanks for being with us. There is no excuse that this has not been fixed yet.

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