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Tape: Bush, Chertoff Warned Before Katrina

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/K/KATRINA_VIDEO?SITE=7219&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2006-03-01-18-15-10 Mar 1, 6:15 PM EST Tape: Bush, Chertoff
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      Mar 1, 6:15 PM EST

      Tape: Bush, Chertoff Warned Before Katrina

      By MARGARET EBRAHIM and JOHN SOLOMON
      Associated Press Writers

      WASHINGTON (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'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.

      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.

      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. 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
      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.

      "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, 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.

      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."

      ---

      Associated Press writers Ron Fournier and Lara Jakes
      Jordan contributed to this story.

      On the Net:

      Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov

      Federal Emergency Management Agency:
      http://www.fema.gov
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