NBC News has now obtained the videotape of a key private meeting between federal and state officials on Monday Aug. 29, the day Hurricane Katrina hit. Though Michael Brown has been critical of President Bush, the tape shows Brown praising the president that day, saying they'd already talked twice.
“He's asking questions about reports of breaches,” Brown says in the video. “He’s asking about hospitals. He's really engaged, and he's asking a lot of really good questions.”
Yet, Brown told NBC’s Brian Williams last week that he repeatedly and emphatically warned how bad Katrina would be, but no one listened.
“I want to jam up supply lines,” Brown said last week. “I want to cut the bureaucratic red tape. I want it, balls to the wall was the phrase that I used, in doing everything we could.”
Tapes and transcripts don’t reflect that colorful expression, but Brown does repeatedly sound the alarm and push for action. In a briefing on Sunday Aug. 28, Brown can be heard saying, “My gut tells me ... I told you guys, my gut was, this is a bad one and a big one.”
At the next day's briefing, Brown says, “I want everyone to recognize — I know I'm preaching to the choir to everybody here — how serious the situation remains.”
As for the president, on Thursday Sept 1, four days after Katrina hit, he said, “I don't think anybody anticipated a breach of the levees.”
On a conference call, which President Bush participated in as Katrina approached, the director of the National Hurricane Center, Max Mayfield, said: “I don’t think any model can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that's obviously a very, very grave concern.”
Today, Mayfield told NBC News that he warned only that the levees might be topped, not breached, and that on the many conference calls he monitored, “Nobody talked about the possibility of a levee breach or failure until after it happened.”
In the Aug. 29 tape obtained by NBC News from Bush supporters, a senior White House official asks Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco how the levees are holding up.
“We keep getting reports in some places that maybe water is coming over the levees,” Blanco says on the tape. “We've heard a report, unconfirmed. I think we have not breached the levee. We have not breached the levee at this point in time.”
We now know that an hour before Blanco's assessment, a FEMA official alerted superiors to reports that at least one levee had failed — information that didn’t reach the White House until almost midnight.
Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent.