WASHINGTON—When Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist complains that the government's response to Hurricane Katrina was "simply unacceptable," he speaks with more credibility and moral authority than most.
Frist, a heart surgeon in his pre-politics life, was in New Orleans shortly after Katrina hit, serving as a volunteer doctor, a red stethoscope draped around his neck as he experienced the chaotic disaster response firsthand.
In an interview in his Capitol office about his Labor Day weekend in New Orleans, Frist described a nurse who was stabbed and a doctor who was unable to find security to help, helicopters that were denied landing rights and medical personnel in different parts of the city who were unable to communicate with one another.
"The response to the hurricane—everybody's mad at government, every level of government. We have to earn back the respect by thinking in ways we haven't before, by not trying to defend what happened. You can't defend what happened," Frist said.
A Tennessee Republican with close ties to President Bush, Frist is careful to assign blame to local and state authorities as well as the feds. For that matter, Frist himself has been accused of political missteps in the aftermath of the hurricane.
But his experience in Louisiana is a scathing indictment of government ineptitude, and he isn't toeing the White House line that any criticism is merely a distracting "blame game" played for partisan reasons.
Frist also has volunteered as a doctor in the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan and in Indonesia days after the tsunami struck last December.
"This was worse than what I'd seen in the civil war in Sudan, worse than the medical clinics at a hospital four days after the tsunami," he said.
He's walking a fine political line. In July, he defied Bush by calling for a broader policy on embryonic stem cell research. Now, in criticizing the government response to the hurricane and using his own experience as an example, Frist again risks offending Bush loyalists while hoping to silence critics who say Republicans are only trying to protect the administration.
He said he wanted a joint House-Senate committee to begin investigating what went wrong as soon as possible. "They'll interview hundreds of people to put all of this together, but I'll have a piece of it," he said. "I've got a piece of it ... `cause I was there."
"I know that doctor who couldn't communicate—when his nurse got stabbed—with security, who was 40 feet away," he said. "And that security guard could not communicate with security elsewhere in the hospital."
He complained that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress approved spending to ensure that different agencies could communicate during emergencies. "We passed legislation. The money went. Yet, it wasn't there."
Frist said he spent most of his time in a makeshift hospital at the New Orleans airport, a place of irony and desperation. A bar was transformed into a pharmacy, guarded by a soldier with a shotgun. Doctors carried out triage by placing patients in different-colored tents. The worst off—many old, most poor—tended to be dehydrated or lacking medication for diabetes or high blood pressure. Standard care included a quick pinprick and a test of blood sugars.
As Frist toured the region by helicopter, post-Katrina politics was whirling up a potential embarrassment for him back in Washington.
Before the hurricane, he'd scheduled the Senate to devote its first post-vacation debate to repealing a tax on wealthy estates. He waited until Labor Day, a week after Katrina hit, to announce that the Senate would delay that debate, but by then Democrats had spent days portraying Republicans as more interested in helping the rich than the poor victims of Katrina.
Then, motivated by his experience in New Orleans, he asked the Senate's Homeland Security Committee to investigate the government's response. Two days later, however, he waved the panel off, calling instead for a joint investigation with the House of Representatives. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., joined him. But neither Frist nor Hastert consulted Democrats, who accused the Republicans—who control both houses of Congress and therefore would control any probe—of mounting a partisan investigation.
Frist said he was discussing the panel's composition and the terms of the investigation with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. He said he saw no need for an independent commission—an idea Democrats promoted.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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