Black Witnesses Testify Racism Influenced Katrina Response
WASHINGTON – The select House committee looking into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina heard charges Tuesday that the state, local and federal reaction was insufficient, in part because of racial bias.
"No one is going to tell me this wasn't a race issue," said Patricia Thompson, 53, who testified before the Special Investigative Committee on Katrina.
Click in the video box to the right to watch a report by FOX News' Major Garrett.
"If it was not poor African-Americans who would be most affected by this, there would have been a plan in place," said New Orleans resident Doreen Keeler.
At times, black survivors who testified likened themselves to victims of genocide and the Holocaust, a comparison that didn't sit well with some lawmakers.
"Not a single person was marched into a gas chamber and killed," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., told witnesses.
"They died from abject neglect," retorted community activist Leah Hodges. "We left body bags behind."
Another evacuee said being trapped in temporary shelters left her "one sunrise from being consumed by maggots and flies." Another woman said military troops focused machine gun laser targets on her granddaughter's forehead. Others said their families were called racial epithets by police.
Referring to that last charge, Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., said he didn't want to offend the people who had gone through such "incredible challenges" but "I just don't frankly believe it."
"You believe what you want," Thompson said.
Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, requested the hearing and backed up the charges of racism.
"Racism is something we don't like to talk about, but we have to acknowledge it," McKinney said. "And the world saw the effects of American-style racism in the drama as it was outplayed by the Katrina survivors."
Keeler was the one witness to testify that race was only part of the story. The other part is massive incompetence.
"No branch of government was prepared for this disaster. They started with complete confusion and migrated to finger-pointing," she said.
Finger pointing is one theme that emerges from tens of thousands of documents released by Louisiana Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco that show not only confusion, but political turmoil among state, local and federal officials.
Others reveal tensions between the Bush White House and Blanco, and still others reveal Democratic worries about Blanco's response.
Democratic state Sen. Robert Adley wrote in an e-mail three days after the storm: "We are seeing the best and worst of humanity. The worst must be stopped. The looting is spreading. It must be stopped with using whatever means are necessary! ... The whole thing is shameful. This is serious, serious, serious! The public is outraged and they expect swift and firm leadership. Please take control"
Another e-mail reveals a deep rift between Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
"We are not bashing Nagin publicly (though we felt like it), as he had a right to ask the governor and president to deliver the resources," read a Sept. 4 e-mail from Blanco's chief of staff Andy Kopplin to other Blanco staff.
"How should he know who wasn't bringing the resources to bear, as he's been in a bunker ... (of course, Nagin had know (sic) Idea that his comments would play into the White House strategy of blaming us, which they opened a door for, but he didn't have to say it the way he did as it still was insulting to the governor whether he meant it that way or not.)"
Concern about the state response to Katrina weighed heavily on Blanco's senior staff. One e-mail refers to Virginia Democratic Gov. Mark Warner's help.
"From the VA governor's press office that is helping us: The WH spin is that this is state and local fault — but the good news is that except for FOX and LA Times, it doesn't appear that many are buying it," Kopplin wrote to other aides on Sept. 4.
"We need to keep working to get our national surrogates to explain the facts — that the federal response was anemic and had been shortchanged by budget cuts and avoiding responsibilities like protecting Louisiana levees and wetlands," reads the same e-mail.
Also on the public relations front, one Blanco staffer suggested dispatching the heads of state agencies to church services and shelters to represent the governor. That Sept. 4 e-mail said in part: "The President was visiting Red Cross this morning. They are trying to win the public relations battle. We need a strategy that all of us know about."
The recovery issue remains one for debate in Congress. Some lawmakers are pressing for at least another $18 billion on top of the $70 billion approved already for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.