WASHINGTON — 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 video, Bush’s confidence on Aug. 28 starkly contrasts with the dire warnings his disaster chief and a cacophony of federal, state and local officials provided during the four days before the storm.
Brown’s fears voiced
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.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a critic of the administration’s Katrina response, said, “You know, from this tape it looks like everybody was fully aware.”
Some of the footage and transcripts from briefings on Aug. 25-31 conflict 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. “I’m sure it will be the top 10 or 15 when all is said and done,” the National Hurricane Center’s Max Mayfield warned the day Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast.
“I don’t buy the ‘fog of war’ defense,” Brown told the AP in an interview Wednesday. “It was a fog of bureaucracy.”
- Bush declared four days after the storm, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees” that gushed deadly floodwaters into New Orleans. But the transcripts and video show there was plenty of talk about that possibility — and Bush was worried too.
White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Brown discussed fears of a levee breach the day the storm hit.
“I talked to the president twice today, once in Crawford and then again on Air Force One,” Brown said. “He’s obviously watching the television a lot, and he had some questions about the Dome, he’s asking questions about reports of breaches.”
- Louisiana officials angrily blamed the federal government for not being prepared, but the transcripts show they were still praising FEMA as the storm roared toward the Gulf Coast and even two days afterward. “I think a lot of the planning FEMA has done with us the past year has really paid off,” Col. Jeff Smith, Louisiana’s emergency preparedness deputy director, said during the Aug. 28 briefing.
It wasn’t long before Smith and other state officials sounded overwhelmed.
“We appreciate everything that you all are doing for us, and all I would ask is that you realize that what’s going on and the sense of urgency needs to be ratcheted up,” Smith said Aug. 30.
Pleas for help in Mississippi
Mississippi begged for more attention in that same briefing.
“We know that there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana that need to be rescued, but we would just ask you, we desperately need to get our share of assets because we’ll have people dying — not because of water coming up, but because we can’t get them medical treatment in our affected counties,” said a Mississippi state official whose name was not mentioned on the tape.
Video footage of the Aug. 28 briefing, the final one before Katrina struck, showed an intense Brown voicing concerns from the government’s disaster operation center and imploring colleagues to do whatever was necessary to help victims.
“We’re going to need everything that we can possibly muster, not only in this state and in the region, but the nation, to respond to this event,” Brown warned. He called the storm “a bad one, a big one” and implored federal agencies to cut through red tape to help people, bending rules if necessary.
Brown: ‘Just let them yell at me’
“Go ahead and do it,” Brown said. “I’ll figure out some way to justify it. ... Just let them yell at me.”
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.
Missed opportunity seen on tape
One snippet captures a missed opportunity on Aug. 28 for the government to have dispatched active-duty military troops to the region to augment the National Guard.
Chertoff: “Are there any DOD assets that might be available? Have we reached out to them?”
Brown: “We have DOD assets over here at EOC (emergency operations center). They are fully engaged. And we are having those discussions with them now.”
Chertoff: “Good job.”
In fact, active duty troops weren’t dispatched until days after the storm. And many states’ National Guards had yet to be deployed to the region despite offers of assistance, and it took days before the Pentagon deployed active-duty personnel to help overwhelmed Guardsmen.
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.
“They’re not taking patients out of hospitals, taking prisoners out of prisons and they’re leaving hotels open in downtown New Orleans. So I’m very concerned about that,” Brown said.
Despite the concerns, it ultimately took days for search and rescue teams to reach some hospitals and nursing homes.
Brown questioned Superdome safety
Brown also told colleagues one of his top concerns was whether evacuees who went to the New Orleans Superdome — which became a symbol of the failed Katrina response — would be safe and have adequate medical care.
“The Superdome is about 12 feet below sea level.... I don’t know whether the roof is designed to stand, withstand a Category Five hurricane,” he said.
Brown also wanted to know whether there were enough federal medical teams in place to treat evacuees and the dead in the Superdome.
“Not to be (missing) kind of gross here,” Brown interjected, “but I’m concerned” about the medical and mortuary resources “and their ability to respond to a catastrophe within a catastrophe.”
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