Newly released video footage taken just hours before Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast shows that federal officials delivered stark warnings to President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that the storm could lead to massive loss of life.
“We are fully prepared,” Bush responded.
While the information in the video has been public for months, and was the subject of hearings and reports by Congress and the White House, the footage is giving new life to charges that the administration was detached and unresponsive in the face of one of the nation’s worst natural disasters.
The edited video, released by Associated Press, shows Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, briefing state and federal officials -- including Chertoff and Michael D. Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- on Aug. 28. Bush was at his Texas ranch and participated by videophone.
Mayfield tells the officials he wants “to make it absolutely clear to everyone that there is potential for large loss of life ... in the coastal areas from the storm surge,” and emphasizes that there is a “very, very grave concern” about the ability of the levees that separated Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans to stand up against the storm.
On Sept. 1, Bush said on ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
Tensions over the administration’s actions before and after the storm hit Aug. 29 led House Democrats to boycott a select investigative committee. That panel issued a highly critical report Feb. 15, finding that the government had failed in its “most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare.”
Eight days later, the White House released its own detailed chronicle of federal, state and local dysfunction in the preparation for and response to Katrina -- but did not assign blame.
Even so, Democratic reaction to the video Wednesday was swift.
“Never has the need for an independent and thorough investigation into the government failures surrounding Hurricane Katrina been more plainly demonstrated than today,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “Two Republican investigations into Katrina have been completed. Two reports have been issued. It is now apparent that both have only scratched the surface. This administration has a lot to answer for, and America must learn the truth.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that the video confirmed the findings of his committee’s inquiry into the Katrina response.
“This videotape demonstrates for all to see what our committee discovered during its investigation of the preparations for and response to Hurricane Katrina: Government at all levels was forewarned of the catastrophic nature of the approaching storm and did painfully little to be ready to evacuate, search, rescue, and relieve,” he said in a written statement.
In New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin told the Associated Press that he was shocked by the video.
“I have kind of a sinking feeling in my gut right now,” he said after viewing the footage. “I was listening to what people were saying [after the storm] -- 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.”
A White House spokesman, Blair Jones, defended the administration Wednesday, saying that before, during and after the storm, Bush “received multiple briefings from multiple officials and was completely engaged.”
Associated Press spokesman Jack Stokes said that the news service had obtained raw footage of the entire briefing -- as well as transcripts from seven days’ worth of similar government briefings -- from a variety of sources.
The selectively edited video of the Aug. 28 briefing shows Brown at one end of a crowded conference table dotted with microphones, telling federal and state officials: “My gut tells me this is a bad one and a big one -- this is, to put it mildly, the big one, I think.”
It cuts to a shot of Bush, speaking by videophone from his ranch, assuring state officials that the federal government is fully prepared. The transcript shows that he asked no questions about the presentations on Katrina or the dire predictions.
Questions about what -- and when -- the administration knew of the hurricane’s potential for disaster have dogged Bush and Chertoff.
On Aug. 27, the president declared a state of emergency for Louisiana, freeing up federal money and allowing the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA’s parent agency, to coordinate the disaster response.
Transcripts show that by Aug. 28, the administration was aware that military help would probably be needed and that the Superdome might not provide safe harbor during the storm. In the video of the briefing that day, Brown warns that the stadium roof might not withstand a Category 5 storm, and notes that the building is 12 feet below sea level.
“Not to be kind of gross here, but I’m concerned about [the medical and mortuary disaster teams] and their ability to respond to a catastrophe within a catastrophe,” he says.
The AP video does not include footage of Chertoff asking Brown whether he needs any other help or of Chertoff asking whether Brown wants him to approach the Department of Defense. Transcripts show that to both questions, Brown indicated that no additional assistance was needed.
In the transcript of a briefing the following day, Aug. 29, Brown is quoted as saying that Bush “is very engaged, and he’s asking a lot of really good questions I would expect him to ask.”
That Aug. 29 transcript showed that hours after the hurricane hit, federal and state officials remained optimistic about handling the disaster and were unaware that the levees in New Orleans were failing.
Brown -- whom Bush praised on Sept. 2 for doing “a heck of a job” -- resigned under pressure Sept. 12 and has been blamed for much of the failed response.
Though he has adamantly and publicly defended his response in recent weeks, Brown also has admitted to bypassing the chain of command, ignoring Chertoff to phone the White House directly.
In interviews, Brown has described the president as “engaged, but I think there was an overconfidence that FEMA had handled Sept. 11, we had handled the California wildfires, we had handled the 2004 hurricanes right in the middle of the presidential elections. Hey, we could do this too.”
Chertoff has said the “fog of war” made it hard for his department to understand the full scope of the disaster in the early days, a claim Brown has dismissed.
“I don’t buy the fog-of-war defense,” Brown told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “It was a fog of bureaucracy.”
A Homeland Security spokesman, Russ Knocke, disagreed with that interpretation. “It is hard to see how Mike can make that argument with a straight face when he testified under oath that he willfully kept the secretary and the department out of the loop,” Knocke said.
Brown’s performance has also come in for harsh criticism from two congressional committees that have dissected the administration’s response in the hours leading up to Katrina and in the days after.
In response to those investigations, the administration has released about 300,000 pages of documents, including the transcript of the Aug. 28 briefing featured in the video.
“What you have now are visuals that are, for whatever reason, now being given greater light, though they were already public,” Knocke said. “There’s nothing new or insightful here. This has all been in the public domain for months.”
Department briefings are routinely recorded, said Knocke, adding that Homeland Security does not know how Associated Press got the footage of the Aug. 28 briefing. It was also obtained that day or the day after by a network and a cable affiliate, but neither aired it, he said.
“It doesn’t come as a surprise that there’s footage showing ... everyone knew everything in excruciating detail,” said Ivor van Heerden, director of the hurricane public health center at Louisiana State University and a member of a group of state officials and experts helping to oversee the recovery from the storm.
“What is a surprise is that given the billions that the government has spent on homeland security and developing all these response-to-disaster plans ... nothing worked right.”
Times staff writers P.J. Huffstutter in New Orleans and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.