boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe


Video taken on Aug. 28, the day before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, shows President Bush being briefed in a room at his ranch in Texas, and right, FEMA chief Michael D. Brown (center) at the Homeland Security emergency center. (Associated Press)

Bush got warning before Katrina

Footage shows prestorm briefing

WASHINGTON -- 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 the Superdome in New Orleans, and overwhelm rescuers, according to confidential video footage.

Bush, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, did not ask questions during the final briefing before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, but he assured state officials: ''We are fully prepared."

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

In the video, Bush's confidence on Aug. 28 starkly contrasts with the dire warnings his disaster chief and federal, state, and local officials provided during the four days before the storm.

A top hurricane specialist voiced ''grave concerns" about the levees and then-Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael D. 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 yesterday 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."

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's mayor, C. Ray Nagin, a critic of the administration's Katrina response, had a different take after watching the footage yesterday afternoon.

''I have kind [of] 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 conflict with the assertions that federal, state, and local officials have made in assessing the 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," Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Center warned the day Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast.

''I don't buy the fog of war defense," Brown said yesterday. ''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. 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, Governor Kathleen B. Blanco of Louisiana, 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 rapped the federal government on its preparedness, 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," Colonel 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.

''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.

''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. 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.

Chertoff 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.

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. It took days before the Pentagon deployed active-duty personnel to help overwhelmed guardsmen.

Mayfield, of the National Hurricane Center, said at 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 said.

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 chief concerns was whether evacuees who went to the Superdome -- which became a symbol of the Katrina response -- would be safe and have adequate medical care.

PDF TRANSCRIPTS: Aug. 28 PDF Aug. 29
SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives