A videotape of a conference call between the White House and emergency officials in Louisiana and Mississippi clearly catches President George W. Bush in a lie in his later claims that his administration didn’t know about the dangers facing the Gulf Coast from Hurricana Katrina.
On the eve of Katrina’s fateful landfall, Bush was confident. His homeland security chief appeared relaxed. And warnings of the coming destruction — breached or overrun levees, deaths at the New Orleans Superdome and overwhelming needs for post-storm rescues _ were delivered in dramatic terms to all involved. All of it was captured on videotape.
The Associated Press obtained the confidential government video and made it public Wednesday, offering Americans their own inside glimpse into the government’s fateful final Katrina preparations after months of fingerpointing and political recriminations.
"My gut tells me … this is a bad one and a big one," then-federal disaster chief Michael Brown told the final government-wide briefing the day before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.
The president didn’t ask a single question during the briefing but assured soon-to-be-battered state officials: "We are fully prepared."
The footage — along with seven days of transcripts of briefings obtained by AP — 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.
A top hurricane expert voiced "grave concerns" about the levees and Brown, then the Federal Emergency Management Agency chief, 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.
Heading into damage control mode Wednesday, the White House and Homeland Security Department urged the public not to read too much into the footage.
"I hope people don’t draw conclusions from the president getting a single briefing," Bush 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."
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said his department would not release the full set of videotaped briefings, saying most transcripts — though not the videotapes — from the sessions were provided to congressional investigators months ago.
"There’s nothing new or insightful on these tapes," Knocke said. "We actively participated in the lessons-learned review and we continue to participate in the Senate’s review and are working with them on their recommendation."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a critic of the administration’s Katrina response, had a different take after watching the footage from an AP reporter’s camera.
"I have kind a sinking feeling in my gut right now," 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. "I’m sure it will be the top 10 or 15 when all is said and done," 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 flood waters into New Orleans. He later clarified, 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.
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 shows 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.
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.
"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.
"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. Officials say he was frequently updated on the road about Katrina.
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 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."
On the Net:
Homeland Security Department: https://www.dhs.gov
Federal Emergency Management Agency: https://www.fema.gov