CBS' Orr uncritically reported White House explanation for Bush's assertion that no one anticipated levee breaches

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

CBS News correspondent Bob Orr uncritically reported the White House's "explanation" for why President Bush falsely claimed that nobody anticipated that Hurricane Katrina would cause breaches in New Orleans levees and flood the city. Orr reported that the White House stated that Katrina "was a Category 3" storm when it made landfall but did not mention that, at the time, it was assessed as a more powerful Category 4 hurricane.

On the March 1 broadcast of the CBS Evening News, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr uncritically reported the White House's "explanation" for why President Bush on September 1, 2005, falsely claimed that nobody anticipated that Hurricane Katrina would cause breaches in New Orleans levees and flood the city.

Airing newly released video showing that "the top officials of the Bush administration and the president himself were fully briefed about the devastating potential of Katrina and the dire possibility that the levees may fail," guest anchor Russ Mitchell asked Orr that given the warnings about Katrina that the new video shows Bush received, "[W]hy, even days after this meeting, did the president insist the White House did not anticipate any problems at all with these levees?" Orr answered: "The White House explains that all of those pre-warnings were based on a Category 5 storm, a very, very powerful storm. When Katrina hit, it was a Category 3. And what the White House is saying is that no one predicted that with a Cat 3 storm, that the levees would fail." But, in fact, at the time, the storm was assessed as a Category 4, not a Category 3, a fact that Orr did not mention. It was only months later that the assessment was downgraded to a Category 3. Moreover, in a December 20, 2005, post-storm report, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) noted that Katrina's storm surge, when it hit the Gulf Coast, was much higher than a normal Category 3 hurricane because of Katrina's earlier Category 5 strength before it made landfall. In addition, the July 2004 preparedness exercise, based around a fictional Category 3 storm named "Hurricane Pam," modeled the impact of a direct hit on New Orleans by a Category 3 hurricane -- and one with weaker winds than Katrina. In the exercise, authorities anticipated that such a storm would cause a surge that would overtop the levees, drowning New Orleans in 20 feet of water.

At the time Katrina made landfall, the NHC believed that Katrina had made landfall as a Category 4 storm with 138 mph winds (120 knots). The NHC's later analysis, contained in its post-storm report, acknowledged the earlier finding but determined that the hurricane made landfall as a Category 3 storm with 126 mph winds (110 knots):

The best track intensity of Katrina at 1200 UTC 29 August, shortly after the initial Louisiana landfall when the central pressure was 923 mb, has been adjusted downward in post-storm analysis to 110 kt [knots] from the operationally assessed value of 120 kt.

The NHC's Katrina report also noted that, while Katrina had diminished to a high Category 3 storm, its storm surge far exceeded that of a typical Category 3 because it had previously been a much more powerful storm:

The massive storm surge produced by Katrina, even though it had weakened from Category 5 intensity the previous day to Category 3 at landfall in Louisiana, can be generally explained by the huge size of the storm. Katrina had on 29 August a large (about 25-30 n mi [nautical miles]) radius of maximum winds and a very wide swath of hurricane force winds that extended at least 75 n mi to the east from the center. Even though Hurricane Camille (1969) was more intense than Katrina at landfall while following a similar track, Camille was far more compact and produced comparably high storm surge values along a much narrower swath. Also, Katrina had already generated large northward-propagating swells, leading to substantial wave setup along the northern Gulf coast, when it was at Category 4 and 5 strength during the 24 hours or so before landfall. In fact, buoy 42040, operated by the National Data Buoy Center (NDBC) and located about 64 n mi south of Dauphin Island, Alabama, reported a significant wave height (defined as the average of the one-third highest waves) of 30 feet as early as 0000 UTC 29 August. This buoy later measured a peak significant wave height of 55 feet at 1100 UTC that matches the largest significant wave height ever measured by a NDBC buoy. Overall, Katrina's very high water levels are attributable to a large Category 3 hurricane's storm surge being enhanced by waves generated not long before by a Category 5 strength storm.

NHC hurricane specialist Richard Knabb appeared on CNN's breaking news coverage of Katrina on August 29 and described the hurricane as a Category 4 storm:

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (anchor): Give me a sense how bad you think this is going to be. The words like catastrophic have been used by numerous people regarding this storm. Is that still safe to say?

KNABB: It certainly is possible. Whenever you have Category 4 hurricane making landfall anywhere, you could get extreme to sometimes catastrophic damages. Structures could be completely destroyed in some cases. And on top of that, this hurricane is making landfall in an area that is quite susceptible to storm surge. So, certainly, I think people are going to be astounded in some cases by what they see after the storm passes by.

In addition, CBS repeatedly reported that Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane. During CBS' initial August 29, 2005, coverage of the hurricane on The Early Show, anchor Harry Smith stated that "Katrina came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane this morning." And on the September 4, 2005, broadcast of 60 Minutes, correspondent Scott Pelley reported that New Orleans' levees "were designed in 1965 to withstand a Category 3 storm. Category 4 Katrina pushed her [storm] surge over the top."

The House Select Committee's report on Katrina listed communications received by the White House Homeland Security Council (HSC) in an appendix. While the report notes that "The items logged do not reflect the entire information flow to the White House, or all documents provided to the Select Committee," it does show that the HSC received a report on the night of August 28 from the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) stating that Katrina had been upgraded to a Category 5 storm, and a subsequent report on the morning of August 29, 2005, that Katrina had weakened to a Category 4 storm. There is, however, no report to the HSC of Katrina weakening to Category 3 prior to landfall.

In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's "Hurricane Pam" planning exercise, conducted in July 2004, assumed a direct hit on New Orleans by a hurricane with 120 mph winds -- a Category 3. It "result[ed] in 10 to 20 feet of water within the City of New Orleans," according to January 24 congressional testimony by the president of the company that designed the Hurricane Pam exercise. A January 26 New Orleans Times-Picayune article reported that, in a Department of Homeland Security report and slideshow, FEMA "spelled out the death and destruction anticipated by Hurricane Pam and warned that Katrina was likely to be worse," and "focuses on the disastrous results of levee failure." The Homeland Security report reportedly stated that "Any storm rated Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson (hurricane) scale will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching. This could leave the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months." The Times-Picayune reported that the White House Situation Room received the report at 1:47 a.m. on August 29, 2005 -- approximately five hours prior to Katrina's first landfall.

Moreover, Bush reportedly expressed concern about the levees breaching while the hurricane battered New Orleans. As reported in a March 2 New York Times article, then-Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown stated at a August 29, 2005, midday videoconference that "he had spoken with President Bush twice in the morning and that the president was asking about reports that the levees had been breached."

From the March 1 broadcast of the CBS Evening News:

MITCHELL: So, Bob, given what we've just seen, why, even days after this meeting, did the president insist the White House did not anticipate any problems at all with these levees?

ORR: The White House explains that all of those pre-warnings were based on a Category 5 storm, a very, very powerful storm. When Katrina hit, it was a Category 3. And what the White House is saying is that no one predicted that with a Cat 3 storm, that the levees would fail.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Network/Outlet
CBS
Show/Publication
CBS Evening News
Stories/Interests
Hurricane Katrina, Natural Disasters
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