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"Who's in charge of security in New Orleans?" I asked.
My question silenced the raucous discussion in the Air Force One conference room on Friday, September 2, 2005. "The governor is in charge," Mayor Ray Nagin said, pointing across the dark wood table at Governor Kathleen Blanco.
Every head pivoted in her direction. The Louisiana governor froze. She looked agitated and exhausted. "I think it's the mayor," she said non-committally.
The tone started out tense and got worse. The governor and mayor bickered. Everyone blasted the Federal Emergency Management Agency for failing to meet their needs. Congressman Bobby Jindal pointed out that FEMA had asked people to email their requests, despite the lack of electricity in the city. I shook my head. "We'll fix it," I said, looking at FEMA director Mike Brown. Senator Mary Landrieu interrupted with unproductive emotional outbursts. "Would you please be quiet?" I had to say to her at one point.
I asked to speak to Governor Blanco privately. We walked out of the conference room, through a narrow passageway, and into the small cabin at the front tip of Air Force One. I told her it was clear the state and local response forces had been overwhelmed. "Governor," I pressed, "you need to authorize the federal government to take charge of the response."
She told me she needed twenty-four hours to think it over.
"We don't have twenty-four hours," I snapped. "We've waited too long already."
The governor refused to give an answer.
Next I asked to meet privately with Mayor Nagin. He had spent four days since Katrina holed up in a downtown hotel. He hadn't bathed or eaten a hot meal until he used my shower and ate breakfast on Air Force One. In a radio interview the previous evening, he had vented his frustration with the federal government. "Get off your asses and do something," he said, "and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country." Then he broke down in tears. When I met him on that plane, Ray whispered an apology for his outburst and explained that he was exhausted.
I asked the mayor what he thought about federalizing the responses. He supported it. "Nobody's in charge," he said. "We need a clear chain of command." But only the governor could request that the federal government assume control of the emergency.
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