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March 01, 2006

Caught On Tape Disasters  Politics

AP reports that it has obtained video tape and transcripts of pre-Katrina briefings that show that Bush and Chertoff were warned explicitly that the levees might fail and that New Orleans residents gathering at the Superdome and elsewhere were very much at risk. AP:

In dramatic and sometimes agonizing terms, federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his homeland security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees, put lives at risk in New Orleans' Superdome and overwhelm rescuers, according to confidential video footage.

Bush didn't ask a single question during the final briefing before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, but he assured soon-to-be-battered state officials: "We are fully prepared."

The footage — along with seven days of transcripts of briefings obtained by The Associated Press — show in excruciating detail that while federal officials anticipated the tragedy that unfolded in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, they were fatally slow to realize they had not mustered enough resources to deal with the unprecedented disaster.

Linked by secure video, Bush expressed a confidence on Aug. 28 that starkly contrasted with the dire warnings his disaster chief and numerous federal, state and local officials provided during the four days before the storm.

A top hurricane expert voiced "grave concerns" about the levees and then-Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown told the president and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that he feared there weren't enough disaster teams to help evacuees at the Superdome.

"I'm concerned about ... their ability to respond to a catastrophe within a catastrophe," Brown told his bosses the afternoon before Katrina made landfall.

The White House and Homeland Security Department urged the public Wednesday not to read too much into the video footage.

"I hope people don't draw conclusions from the president getting a single briefing," presidential spokesman Trent Duffy said, citing a variety of orders and disaster declarations Bush signed before the storm made landfall. "He received multiple briefings from multiple officials, and he was completely engaged at all times." [...]

"I have kind a sinking feeling in my gut right now," [New Orleans Mayor Ray] Nagin said. "I was listening to what people were saying — they didn't know, so therefore it was an issue of a learning curve. You know, from this tape it looks like everybody was fully aware."

Some of the footage and transcripts from briefings Aug. 25-31 conflicts with the defenses that federal, state and local officials have made in trying to deflect blame and minimize the political fallout from the failed Katrina response:

  • Homeland Security officials have said the "fog of war" blinded them early on to the magnitude of the disaster. But the video and transcripts show federal and local officials discussed threats clearly, reviewed long-made plans and understood Katrina would wreak devastation of historic proportions. [...]

  • Bush declared four days after the storm, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees"...He later clarified [sic], saying officials believed, wrongly, after the storm passed that the levees had survived. But the transcripts and video show there was plenty of talk about that possibility even before the storm — and Bush was worried too. [...]

    Bush appeared from a narrow, windowless room at his vacation ranch in Texas, with his elbows on a table. Hagin was sitting alongside him. Neither asked questions in the Aug. 28 briefing.

    "I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, but we will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm," the president said.

    A relaxed Chertoff, sporting a polo shirt, weighed in from Washington at Homeland Security's operations center. He would later fly to Atlanta, outside of Katrina's reach, for a bird flu event. [...]

    The National Hurricane Center's Mayfield told the final briefing before Katrina struck that storm models predicted minimal flooding inside New Orleans during the hurricane but he expressed concerns that counterclockwise winds and storm surges afterward could cause the levees at Lake Pontchartrain to be overrun.

    "I don't think any model can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not but that is obviously a very, very grave concern," Mayfield told the briefing. Other officials expressed concerns about the large number of New Orleans residents who had not evacuated. [Emphasis added]

  • FEMA's Mike Brown comes off comparatively well in the AP account, if you read the whole thing. Brown may have been in over his head, but he clearly was a whole lot more engaged than Chertoff and Bush. We all may have fallen for White House spin when we accepted Brownie as the designated scapegoat.

    Update: [8:49 PM] Crooks and Liars has video.

    Posted by Jonathan at March 1, 2006 08:43 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Comments

    According to Countdown with Keith Olbermann last night on MSNBC (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11638354/), one of the video tapes was actually released to the media on the day it happened. This is the second under lying story, the total incompetence of the media to hold the President accountable.

    Posted by: mark at March 2, 2006 11:01 AM