NBC's Nightly News and Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume uncritically reported the new White House explanation for President Bush's claim that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." The administration now claims that Bush was warned only of the levees "overtopping," not breaching. However, some key facts undermine this White House explanation.
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On NBC's Nightly News and Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, news correspondents uncritically reported the White House's latest attempt to explain how recent videotapes of Hurricane Katrina conference calls that show pre-Katrina warnings to President Bush about the "grave" risk of flooding in New Orleans do not contradict the president's debunked statement two days later that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." NBC senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers reported that National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield "told NBC News that he warned only that the levees might be topped, not breached, and that on the many conference calls he monitored, nobody talked about the possibility of a levee breach or failure until after it happened." Similarly, a Special Report news segment by Fox News general assignment reporter Mike Emanuel aired White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy telling Emanuel that "overtop means that the water goes over the top, as the word implies. Breaching means that they actually fail, there's a hole in the levee, and a breach is obviously far worse." But neither report noted that key facts undermine the White House's latest explanation.
First, Bush himself reportedly raised the question of levee breaches as the hurricane hit on August 29, 2005, as indicated by a portion of the videotape that Myers played earlier in the segment. Second, in the early morning of August 29, just before Katrina hit land, the Department of Homeland Security warned the White House that, based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's July 2004 "Hurricane Pam" planning exercise, Katrina could cause levee breaching as well as overtopping. And third, preliminary engineering findings from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Lousiana State University (LSU) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) have stated that erosion from overtopping in fact caused many of the levee breaches.
Contrary to the claim that Bush was warned only about "overtopping" rather than "breaching," Media Matters for America has noted that Bush reportedly expressed concern about a breaching of the levees 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." Myers, in fact, aired this part of the August 29 videotape early in her Nightly News report, but failed to note that this statement cast doubt upon Mayfield's assertion that Bush had only been warned about overtopping.
JEANNE MESERVE (CNN homeland security correspondent): In the transcripts of the 29th briefing, you talk about conversations you've had that morning with the president. This is the day of landfall, and you say you've talked to him about a number of things. He's asked questions breaches of the levees. How did the president know to ask about breaches of the levees? Did he have reports in hand at that time already that that had happened in New Orleans?
BROWN: There's no question in my mind he probably had those reports, because we were feeding in the Homeland Security Operations Center, into the White House sit room, all of the information that we were getting. So he had to have had that information. Plus, I think the president knew from our earlier conversations that that was one of my concerns, that the levees could actually breach.
Moreover, as Media Matters noted, a January 26 New Orleans Times-Picayune article reported that just before Katrina made landfall, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security warned the White House's Homeland Security Council that, based on the its July 2004 "Hurricane Pam" planning exercise, "[a]ny 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." Katrina, at the time, was rated a Category 4 hurricane. The fictional "Hurricane Pam" was a category 3 with 120 mph winds, and 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. According to the Times-Picayune article, FEMA, in a Department of Homeland Security report and slide show, "spelled out the death and destruction anticipated by Hurricane Pam and warned that Katrina was likely to be worse" and "focuse[d] on the disastrous results of levee failure." 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.
Finally, preliminary engineering findings indicate that, in many cases, levee breaches were in fact caused by the erosion that resulted from overtopping. From the final report of the House of Representatives' Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina:
According to preliminary information from NSF, ASCE, and LSU, most of the levees and floodwall breaches on the east side of New Orleans were caused by overtopping, as the storm surge rose over the tops of the levees and/or their floodwalls and produced erosion that subsequently led to breaches. A variety of factors led to overtopping of the Industrial Canal and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO). An LSU Scientist, Hassan Madhriqui, said that MR-GO worked as a funnel which increased the height of the storm surge and "caused floodwaters to stack up several feet higher than elsewhere in the metro area and sharply increased the surge's speed as it rushed through the MR-GO and into the Industrial Canal." The overtopping eroded the backside of the canals, scoured out the foundations, and led to their collapse and thus major flooding of adjacent neighborhoods. According to [University of California, Berkeley professor Raymond] Seed, "A majority of them [levee breaches] were the result of overtopping, and that simply means that the hurricane was bigger than the levees were built to take...."
In contrast, there was little or no overtopping along most of the levees in the vicinity of Lake Ponchartrain. The only breach along Lake Ponchartrain was in New Orleans East, which was probably due to overtopping. But in the drainage canals that feed into Lake Ponchartrain -- the 17th Street and London Avenue Canal -- there was no overtopping, and the failures were likely caused by weaknesses in the foundation soil underlying the levees, the weakness in the soils used to construct the earthen levee embankments themselves, or weaknesses caused by vegetation growing along the levees. These were the most costly breaches, leading to widespread flooding of central New Orleans -- to include the downtown area and several large residential neighborhoods. According to Van Heerden of LSU, "the surge in Lake Ponchartrain wasn't that of a category 3 storm, and nor did it exceed the design criteria of the standard project hurricane." [The University of Hawaii's Peter] Nicholson of ASCE concurred with this assessment, adding, "If the levees [on Lake Ponchartrain] had done what they were designed to do, a lot of the flooding of New Orleans would not have occurred, and a lot of the suffering that occurred as a result of the flooding would not have occurred."
From the March 2 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:
MYERS: NBC News has now obtained the videotape of a key private meeting between federal and state officials on Monday, August 29th, the day Katrina hit. Though Michael Brown has been critical of the president, the tape shows Brown praising the president that day, saying they'd already talked twice.
BROWN: (video clip) He's asking questions about reports of breaches. He's asking about hospitals. He's really engaged, asking a lot of really good questions.
MYERS: Yet, Brown told [Nightly News anchor] Brian Williams last week that he repeatedly and emphatically warned how bad Katrina would be, but no one listened.
BROWN: (video clip) I want to jam up supply lines. I want to cut the bureaucratic red tape. I want it "balls to the wall" -- was the phrase that I used in doing everything we could.
MYERS: Tapes and transcripts don't reflect that colorful expression, but Brown does repeatedly sound the alarm and push for action. Sunday:
BROWN: (video clip) My gut tells me, I told you guys, my gut was this is a bad one and a big one.
BROWN: (video clip) I want everyone to recognize -- I know I'm preaching to the choir to everybody here -- how serious the situation remains.
MYERS: As for the president, on Thursday, September 1st, four days after Katrina hit, he said this:
BUSH: (video clip) I don't think anybody anticipated a breach of the levees.
MYERS: On a conference call, which President Bush participated in as Katrina approached, hurricane expert Max Mayfield said this:
MAYFIELD: (video clip) I don't think anybody can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that's obviously a very, very grave concern.
MYERS: Today, Mayfield told NBC News that he warned only that the levees might be topped, not breached, and that on the many conference calls he monitored, nobody talked about the possibility of a levee breach or failure until after it happened. In the new tape obtained by NBC from Bush supporters, a senior White House official asks Louisiana Governor [Kathleen Babineaux] Blanco how the levees are holding up.
BLANCO: (video clip): We keep getting reports in -- in some places that there may be water coming over the levees. We've heard a report, unconfirmed. I think we have that we have not breached the levee. We have not breached the levee at this point in time.
MYERS: We now know that an hour before Blanco's assessment, a FEMA official alerted superiors to reports that at least one levee had failed, information which didn't reach the White House until almost midnight. Lisa Myers, NBC News, New Orleans.
From the March 2 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
EMANUEL: There was also discussion about the levees in New Orleans. The National Hurricane Center's Max Mayfield, according to a transcript of the video conference, questioned whether a storm surge on Lake Pontchartrain would top some of the levees. Quote: "The current track and the forecast we have now suggests that there will be minimal flooding in the city of New Orleans itself, but we're -- we've always said that the storm surge model is only accurate within about 20 percent." Some news organizations reported that the tapes showed Mayfield warning that the levees could be breached by the storm, but on the clip released by AP, Mayfield's warning is only about whether flood water could top the levees.
MAYFIELD (video clip): I don't think anybody can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not. But that's obviously a very, very grave concern.
DUFFY: Overtop means that the water goes over the top, as the word implies. Breaching means that they actually fail, there's a hole in the levee, and a breach is obviously far worse.