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Back to the drawing board: A first look at lessons learned after Katrina

Sep 15, 2005

Opening Remarks by Congressman Ruppersberger:

I thank both you and Ranking Member Waxman for holding this incredibly important hearing today.

I would like to express my heartfelt sympathy for those who lost so much in Hurricane Katrina.

The President called the overall response to Hurricane Katrina "Not Acceptable" and I agree. The response was a local, state, and federal failure. The system absolutely failed the people of the Gulf Coast.

The way the system is set up now, if the local government can't handle the situation, if the state can't handle it, that's when the federal government needs to step in. But that didn't happen and we need to know why.

Thousands of residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida were ordered to evacuate but when they reached the evacuation sites like the Superdome in New Orleans they were abandoned.

There was not enough food, water, and medical supplies to go around.

As the flood waters rose, thousands of Americans were left behind to fend for themselves amidst chaos and lawlessness. This was wrong and must not happen in the future.

But our job today is to find out what went wrong and why. The victims of Hurricane Katrina deserve to know why their federal, state, and local government failed them.

But let's get to the facts.

On Thursday, August 25th, Hurricane Katrina hit Florida killing at least eleven people and heads to the Gulf Coast.

On Saturday, August 27th, the President of the United States declared a state of emergency in the areas of Louisiana expected to be hit hard by Hurricane Katrina - now a Category 5. This move paved the way for federal aid once the storm made landfall.

On Monday, August 29th, 2005, the storm hit Louisiana with a vengeance and headed toward Mississippi.

On Tuesday, August 30th, 2005, two levees broke in New Orleans and water flooded much of the city. Thousands climbed onto their rooftops and attempted to flee their flooded homes.

The ones who could made their way to shelters like the Superdome and Convention Center in downtown New Orleans. The crowd was estimated in the tens of thousands. Food, water, and medical supplies were quickly used up. Violence, chaos, and utter lawlessness took over.

The images were played out on national TV. The country stood by in shock and horror. Many of the people stranded at the Superdome and the Convention Center were people of color. Many were poor and didn't have the resources to flee the disaster.

But the National Guard didn't arrive until four days later on Friday, September 2nd. FOUR DAYS LATER. It took four days for the federal response to start.

Americans died because their government failed them. These victims - not refugees - were forced to endure horrific circumstances.

That is absolutely unacceptable.

We need to find out what went wrong and fix the system to better respond next time for ALL AMERICANS.

We need to stop all of the blaming, stop all of the spinning, and get down to what we were elected to do... to fix problems and protect the American people.

First, FEMA needs to be taken out of the Department of Homeland Security and restored to an independent agency. It must be headed by an emergency management professional with a direct line to the President. FEMA needs the independence to address disasters without navigating through layers of bureaucracy.

It is about leadership.

As part of this committee, I believe we must investigate where the breakdown between the local, state, and federal governments happened and prevent it from happening again.

We have brought this broad array of local and state experts together today to help bring some insight into what went so terribly wrong.

I believe it is our responsibility as members of this Committee and as citizens of this country to protect ALL of our citizens.

We must send a clear message to our country that whether you are black or white, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat -- your government is here to protect you in a crisis. We must do this quickly to keep our country and her citizens safe. We can not control when the next natural disaster will hit but we can control how we prepare for it.

We must be ready. Our nation depends on us.

Thank You.

C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger