Hearing Exposes Lack of Planning and Coordination in Evacuating Hurricane Katrina’s Most Vulnerable Victims

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Susan Collins, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Ranking Member Joseph Lieberman held a hearing today that focused on the evacuation of the greater New Orleans area in preparation for Hurricane Katrina, as well as on the special challenges faced by hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities that care for people with special needs. Today’s hearing was the 13th in a series of hearings that are part of the committee’s investigation into the government’s preparation for and response to the hurricane and aftermath. The hearing was titled, “Challenges in a Catastrophe: Evacuating New Orleans in Advance of Hurricane Katrina.”

Committee members heard testimony today from: The Honorable Johnny B. Bradberry, Secretary, Louisiana Department Of Transportation And Development; Colonel Terry Ebbert, Director, New Orleans Office Of Homeland Security; Walter S. Maestri, Ph.D., Director, Jefferson Parish Office Of Emergency Management; Jimmy Guidry, M.D., Medical Director And State Health Officer, Louisiana Department Of Health And Hospitals; Kevin U. Stephens, M.D., J.D., Director, New Orleans Health Department; and Joseph A. Donchess, Executive Director, Louisiana Nursing Home Association.

“The initial evacuation from New Orleans in advance of the storm went relatively well,” said Senator Collins. “Then, so to speak, the wheels came off. Those without access to transportation our of the region found themselves stranded, high and dry, but only in the figurative sense. Among those left behind were thousands of elderly, disabled, and disadvantaged residents.”

“No one acted to ensure that the pre-landfall evacuation of New Orleans would be aggressive, let alone complete – not the city, whose citizens were at risk, not the state, which was responsible for arranging transportation for evacuees under the plan, and not the federal government which had the authority to assist in the event of a catastrophic event but instead stood on the sidelines as the hurricane approached,” Lieberman said. “The searing pictures of those who were left behind in New Orleans – at the Super Dome, the Convention Center, on the I-10 overpass, and in flooded medical facilities — are images that remain with us. Emergency planning that does not make provisions for society’s most vulnerable – the aged, the sick, the poor – is not just operationally unacceptable. It is morally unacceptable.”

Much of today’s hearing focused on learning why the responsible government agencies failed to make adequate arrangements for people in the city who needed help with transportation or who were too ill or too frail to leave on their own. The hearing also revealed the inadequacy of emergency evacuation plans at hospitals and nursing homes.