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Much blame is going around in Hurricane Katrina aftermath

NEW ORLEANS -- In many ways, New Orleans is a huge crime scene, with bodies and victims and fingerprints -- many, many sets of fingerprints.

But who did it?

Who is responsible for this mess, for a barely functioning city with large swathes still uninhabited -- or uninhabitable -- a year after Hurricane Katrina?

An anonymous critic, posting his verdict at the edge of the French Quarter, blames the Army Corps of Engineers and its failure to build levees that could keep the floodwaters out: ``Hold the Corps Accountable," demands the sign.

Others curse the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- for not rescuing New Orleans as the waters rose or in the months after the storm hit. In ravaged Lakeview, a makeshift gallows bears a sign that reads: ``Last Resort Shelter. Reserved for Looters/FEMA Reps/Adjusters."

But the roll of those accused of failing New Orleans is a long one: state and local officials who did not have a good plan for the disaster and now preside over a languid recovery; a president who at first seemed remote from the cataclysm and then made promises that have not been fully realized.

So many did not live up to their responsibilities, said G. Paul Kemp, a Louisiana State University engineer and member of Team Louisiana, a group of forensic engineers examining how the flooding occurred. Every time anyone points that out, he said, ``people say: `Oh, we don't want to play the blame game. We've got to get things moving.' "

But things are moving agonizingly slow. Piles of debris and wrecked cars are everywhere, and searchers were still finding bodies in ruined homes.

Harried recovery officials say it's only been a year. But to Lakeview resident Pascal Warner, a year seems like a pretty long time.

``It wasn't Mother Nature," said Warner, whose home was about a dozen blocks from the 17th Street Canal levee. ``If it wouldn't have been for the break in the levee, we could have come home the next day and cleaned up the yard . . . and gone right on living."

Forensic engineers have since uncovered design and construction flaws that some say border on criminal negligence.

Investigators say many levee sections along the city's drainage canals were built of weak, unstable soils, which apparently were scoured away by the water pressing in from Lake Pontchartrain. Metal sheet pilings that anchor the concrete floodwalls atop the earthen structures were driven much shallower into the ground than the Corps had believed.

Dan Hitchings, who is overseeing the flood-control repairs for the Corps of Engineers, said the question of liability for damage from the collapsed floodwalls is still open, but the Corps must accept responsibility ``for sections of this project that failed before we had intended it to."

But the city and state knew about the risks.

``Louisiana had been on notice of its vulnerability to catastrophic hurricanes for decades, but over the long term had never fully upgraded its emergency-response systems to the level necessary to protect its citizens from those events," according to a report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

FEMA, too, was ``unprepared for a catastrophic event" on this scale, the committee said.

Thousands of people in and around the city are still awaiting delivery of trailers from the federal government or for workers to install services at mobile homes already in place.

At the same time, federal audits found that FEMA wasted as much as $1.4 billion when it gave away debit cards too freely to people who misspent the money.

Wrangling among Mayor C. Ray Nagin and members of the City Council over which areas of the city should be given resources to rebuild has stalled the adoption of a unified redevelopment plan, leaving homeowners in many wrecked neighborhoods in limbo.

The people in charge say whatever happened, happened. They say they're moving forward.

``We're working six days a week, 10-12 hours a day . . . and we have been doing this since day one," said Judy Martinez, a FEMA official in Louisiana.

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