Veterans Affairs Chief Praises Hurricane Evacuation Efforts

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Amid widespread criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina (search), the Veterans Affairs secretary praised his department for an effective evacuation of about 1,200 veterans, staff and their families from the Gulf region.

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson (search) attributed the quick response to trained, prepared and dedicated employees who refused to abandon their duties, even when they had no knowledge of the condition of their own homes and families.

"We had people on ventilators, we had liver patients, ambulatory patients, and every patient that we evacuated froma.

Of the VA's five hospitals in the region, the facility in Gulfport, Miss., was "obliterated" and the New Orleans hospital is inoperable. A third facility in Biloxi, Miss., is damaged but functioning, said Nicholson, who toured the area by land and air this week.

Committee Chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho, called the evacuation an "incredible story about a mission accomplished extremely well."

"Their people were trained well enough to make decisions ... to proceed with evacuations, pull people out, instead of to hesitate or wait," he said.

VA spokesman Tom Harvey said more than 900 people, including 241 patients and 84 walk-ins, were evacuated from the New Orleans (search) facility by ground and air after the hurricane hit. The patients in Gulfport were evacuated before Katrina arrived.

Harvey said the department had a critical response team operational on Aug. 25, several days before the storm came ashore. Some patient transfers started around the same time.

The department is financially sound this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. While Nicholson said he can't yet put a price tag on the damage to VA facilities, he anticipates being included in Congress' future supplemental appropriations for hurricane relief.