Tape: Bush, Chertoff Warned Before Katrina
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
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
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
-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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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: