Feds Favored Fuel Over Help for Hospitals After Katrina

In those first hours after Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi, what was more important: alleviating the gas crunch in the Northeast, or restoring power to rural hospitals? The White House chose the former, according to The Hattiesburg American.

The storm also knocked out two power substations in Collins, just north of Hattiesburg.... crucial to Atlanta-based Colonial Pipeline, which moves gasoline and diesel fuel from Texas, through Louisiana and Mississippi and up to the Northeast.
Dan Jordan, manager of Southern Pines Electric Power Association, said Vice President Dick Cheney's office called and left voice mails twice shortly after the storm struck, saying the Collins substations needed power restored immediately....
Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Mike Callahan said the U.S. Department of Energy ... said opening the fuel line was a national priority

That order "delayed efforts by at least 24 hours to restore power to two rural hospitals and a number of water systems," writes Nikki Davis Maute in the American's Sept. 11 edition. It was dangerous for the workers and risky for the region, threatening the power supply of the lone hospital still on full electricity. The Mississippians complied, but aren't particularly happy about it. An editorial in today's American notes:

[T]he area's looming health care crisis could have become a tragedy if power had been cut to Wesley [Medical Center].

Was the national gasoline crisis so serious that it necessitated restoring pipelines for Colonial immediately?

And did this issue take precedence over the needs of hurricane-ravaged South Mississippians?

Or is this one more example of the federal government's failure to comprehend the height, length and breadth of the challenges confronting our region?

Alerted by the blogosphere (starting with Dan Froomkin's ever-invaluable White House Briefing in Tuesday's Washington Post), several news outlets took a look at the story, and AP got on the wire with info from the American's followup . Three Cabinet secretaries (Energy, Transportation and Interior) visited the pipeline operations, and dodged questions about the pipelines' priority over hospitals. "I can't speak to that," reporter Maute quotes Energy Secretary Sam Bodman. "The private sector makes all those decisions." Not so, says Jim Compton, general manager of the South Mississippi Electric Power Association, which distributes power that rural electric cooperatives sell to consumers and businesses. "I considered it a presidential directive to get those pipelines operating," he's quoted in Sunday's story. And in today's American story:

[He] said he pulled linemen from restoring power to hospitals in Stone and George counties to comply with a directive from the White House to restore power to the pipelines.

"You have to know the importance of this operation with three cabinet members coming to the site," Compton said. "If this site is that critical, then I suggest they provide the money to make sure the power supplies to the two pipelines will not be affected by the next hurricane.

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