WASHINGTON – Even as another powerful hurricane hurtled through the Gulf of Mexico, House Republicans launched an investigation Thursday into the “largely abysmal” government response to Hurricane Katrina.

A preoccupied Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, took nearly an hour away from tracking Rita to reconstruct briefings and talks he held three weeks earlier with President Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi, and others.

As he testified via video link from Miami, Mayfield was receiving briefing papers on Rita’s coordinates, with cell phones and pagers ringing in the background.

“I’m getting a little distracted here,” he said, as an aide handed him papers while he answered a question from the select committee.

Though he shed little light on specific conversations, Mayfield recounted the steps he took to sound the alarm, including calling the Mississippi and Louisiana governors a day and a half before Katrina hit to personally convey the danger. Only one other time in his 35-year career has he taken a similar step, he said.

Mayfield confirmed that the National Weather Service first warned that Katrina could strike southeastern Louisiana some 56 hours before it made landfall.

Republicans quizzed him on that point again and again, stressing the 56-hour element.

As lawmakers praised the National Weather Service and Mayfield for the accuracy of the Katrina forecast, their questions focused on what federal, state and local officials knew and the speed of their evacuation plans.

Mayfield confirmed that Bush monitored a daily hurricane conference call on Aug. 28 from his Texas ranch, the day before Katrina hit. “I honestly can’t remember anything that the president said on that day,” he said, noting that he has participated in a flurry of briefings in recent weeks.

Robert White, a committee spokesman, said Mayfield’s testimony was necessary to establish a “baseline” of when authorities were first notified about Katrina’s possible danger.

Asked about summoning Mayfield to testify as a major crisis loomed, White said: “We worked with them. If they had any concern it would intrude in any way, obviously we would have rescheduled.”

House Republicans proceeded largely without Democrats, who are boycotting an inquiry that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has labeled a “sham.” Democrats are pressing for an independent investigation by a Sept. 11-style commission – an idea to which Republicans and the White House are cool.

“The Republican Congress will not investigate this Republican administration,” Pelosi, D-Calif., charged Thursday. “They simply have not done so for four years.”

Two Democratic congressmen from hard-hit districts in Louisiana and Mississippi attended Thursday’s hearing. They pressed anew for an independent probe.

Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Katrina committee, pledged to investigate “aggressively what went wrong and what went right.”

Michael Brown, the FEMA director ousted amid sharp criticism of the federal Katrina response, will testify Tuesday, offering his first official account of the disaster.

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