A special Republican-led congressional committee has begun an investigation into the response by local, state and federal governments to hurricane Katrina. The first hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina began after verbal battles between Democrats and Republicans over its composition, and with another major hurricane bearing down on the U.S. Gulf coast.
Republicans have described the committee as bipartisan, and it is now to a small degree.
Three Democrats from the hurricane-hit states of Louisiana and Mississippi accepted an invitation of the Republican chairman, Congressman Tom Davis to participate, over the objections of Democratic House leaders.
Congressman Davis began the hearing with this appeal.
"The task before us is considerable," said Mr. Davis. "It is too important for carping [complaining]. The American people want the facts and they are watching. They alone will judge whether the review we begin today is thorough and fair."
Charlie Melancon is a Louisiana Democrat.
"Some have dubbed this the blame game," said Mr. Melancon. "It is not about blame, it is about accountability. It is not about dwelling on the past, it is about planning and preparing for future disasters."
What followed was very likely the most intense questioning members of Congress have ever directed at officials responsible for weather and hurricane prediction.
In this exchange, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, was pressed by Congressman Melancon to detail any conversations he might have had with Michael Brown, former head of the government's emergency management agency (FEMA).
MELANCON: "Did you ever have a direct individual conversation with Mr. Brown, one-on-one, this is a monster of a storm, we've got to be prepared. Did you ever have that one-on-one conversation with Mr. Brown?"
MAYFIELD: "I don't remember having a one-on-one conversation with director Brown, but I do remember one of the calls, telling his troops we need to lean out of the foxhole as far as we can and get things done as quickly as possible and get it done right."
Mr. Mayfield and another official were also asked about points at which they contacted state governors and the mayor of New Orleans, and whether President Bush either participated in, or monitored conference calls.
As has been reported frequently since Katrina struck, Mr. Mayfield said he emphasized the gravity of the situation, which was described as potentially catastrophic or extremely dangerous, but added it was not his role to urge any immediate evacuation of New Orleans.
The hearing of the special committee will resume next week, with a scheduled appearance by former emergency management official Brown who resigned amid sharp criticism of his performance.
Meanwhile, two Louisiana Senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, announced legislation, estimated at $250 billion dollars, to fund short and long-term relief needs of victims of hurricane Katrina.
"It is a starting point for our committees, in the House and the Senate, and for administrative agencies to consider, as they are putting relief packages together," she said.
The package, for which there is also support in the House, includes assistance for homeowners and businesses with mortgage payments and other credit relief, help to get Gulf Coast education systems running again, and incentives for Gulf area private investment in reconstruction.