Selective Reliable Sources: Kurtz, Douglass ignored evidence undermining claim that Bush warned only about levees overtopping
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On CNN's Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz presented as fact the claim, advanced by the conservative media, that President Bush was not specifically warned that levees in New Orleans could be breached as a result of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, other evidence shows that Bush and other administration officials were warned and were aware that Katrina could cause the levees to breach, with catastrophic results.
On the March 5 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, host and Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz made the claim, advanced by some conservative media and presented by Kurtz as fact, that President Bush "was not specifically told the levees would be breached." At issue was, as radio host Bill Press noted, a comment made by Bush during an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's Good Morning America two days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." Kurtz, opening the segment, asked if the "Katrina tape story" was "pumped up by the media" because, he claimed, the tapes showed that Bush had not in fact, been warned specifically about a "breach," as the president later stated - and Kurtz asked, therefore, if coverage of the tapes was misplaced. Former ABC News correspondent Linda Douglass, appearing on Kurtz's show, echoed Kurtz's assertion, stating that "this video was a Rorschach already for whatever your point of view was. ... The Republicans are also pointing to the fact that [National Hurricane Center director] Max Mayfield said the levees would be topped, as you said, but not necessarily that they would be breached, that they would break open and flood the city." But contrary to the claim by Kurtz and Douglass that the tapes supported Bush's September 1 comment, they don't, and other evidence also shows that Bush and the White House were aware that Katrina could cause the levees to breach, with catastrophic results.
Kurtz's and Douglass's statements focused narrowly on whether Mayfield warned Bush, in the video, about "topping" rather than "breaching" -- and suggested that because Mayfield mentioned only "topping," Bush could still justify his later comment that no one anticipated the breach of the levees. But such a question ignores other evidence that shows that -- contrary to Bush's claim that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees" -- plenty of administration officials did in fact anticipate a breach of the levees and did warn the White House about that specific threat with Katrina.
As Media Matters for America documented, in the early morning of August 29, 2005, five hours 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. During the discussion, Kurtz asked former presidential adviser David Gergen, "[E]veryone knows the government's response to Hurricane Katrina was pretty awful, but are the media now using these tapes in an effort to portray President Bush as a liar about what he knew and when he knew it?" But contrary to Kurtz's suggestion that the media are misusing the tapes, the tapes do in fact provide further evidence contradicting Bush's claim that no one "anticipated the breach of the levees." According to other tapes, Bush reportedly expressed concern about a breaching of the levees while the hurricane battered New Orleans -- a fact that neither Kurtz nor Douglass reported. As Media Matters has noted, 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."
Kurtz's and Douglass's narrow focus on the tape also ignored the administration's other attempt to explain Bush's comment, which Media Matters debunked at the time: Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff suggested on the September 4, 2005, edition of NBC's Meet the Press that Bush had been referring to newspaper reports the morning after the storm that New Orleans had "dodged a bullet" because the eye of the storm had passed to the east of the city.
Ultimately, however, the distinction between "breach" and "top" is of dubious significance: Mayfield predicted catastrophic damage in New Orleans if the levees were "topped," damage caused by widespread, deep flooding. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported in a 2002 series on the possible consequences of New Orleans being struck by "the big one," the danger wasn't how the water would get into the city but that, once there, it could not drain out of the city -- a scenario known as "filling the bowl":
The debris [from Hurricane Georges], largely the remains of about 70 camps smashed by the waves of a storm surge more than 7 feet above sea level, showed that Georges, a Category 2 storm that only grazed New Orleans, had pushed waves to within a foot of the top of the levees. A stronger storm on a slightly different course -- such as the path Georges was on just 16 hours before landfall -- could have realized emergency officials' worst-case scenario: hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water pouring over the levees into an area averaging 5 feet below sea level with no natural means of drainage.
That would turn the city and the east bank of Jefferson Parish into a lake as much as 30 feet deep, fouled with chemicals and waste from ruined septic systems, businesses and homes. Such a flood could trap hundreds of thousands of people in buildings and in vehicles. At the same time, high winds and tornadoes would tear at everything left standing. Between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die, said John Clizbe, national vice president for disaster services with the American Red Cross.
Like coastal Bangladesh, where typhoons killed 100,000 and 300,000 villagers, respectively, in two horrific storms in 1970 and 1991, the New Orleans area lies in a low, flat coastal area. Unlike Bangladesh, New Orleans has hurricane levees that create a bowl with the bottom dipping lower than the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain. Though providing protection from weaker storms, the levees also would trap any water that gets inside -- by breach, overtopping or torrential downpour -- in a catastrophic storm.
"Filling the bowl" is the worst potential scenario for a natural disaster in the United States, emergency officials say. The Red Cross' projected death toll dwarfs estimates of 14,000 dead from a major earthquake along the New Madrid, Mo., fault, and 4,500 dead from a similar catastrophic earthquake hitting San Francisco, the next two deadliest disasters on the agency's list.
Moreover, as Media Matters has noted, 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, according to the final report of the House of Representatives' Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina.
From the March 5 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
KURTZ: Bill Press, this Katrina tape story, is it pumped up by the media? I mean, not only were transcripts of those meetings already available to the press, but Bush was not specifically told the levees would be breached. So?
PRESS: Well, I think for the media -- first of all, it's Mardi Gras, it came out at Mardi Gras time. Katrina has been one of the biggest stories covered in the last six months. It gave everybody a chance to get a reason to go to New Orleans other than to celebrate Mardi Gras, to bring the thing back. And you know the other thing I found funny about it? It also gave a chance to play that hurricane Max tape and then President Bush's "nobody anticipated the levees."
KURTZ: Well, there's a rare press apology. We'll come back to Michael Brown in a second. But David Gergen, everyone knows the government's response to Hurricane Katrina was pretty awful, but are the media now using these tapes in an effort to portray President Bush as a liar about what he knew and when he knew it?
GERGEN: Well, as you well know, Howie, what develops in the press often is a storyline, a narrative about -- about a president or about another political figure, and the narrative about this administration has been developed as -- as in the hunting accident, as on the ports, and now with Katrina, they've been asleep at the switch. That their problem is not so much their ideas; their problem is their execution. They're not there. They're not doing -- you know, they didn't respond properly. But I have to tell you, unlike some of my colleagues, I think the media underplayed the videotape. Had it not been for these other stories, I think there would have been more exploration of this, and it would have been more of an expose than it became.
KURTZ: So, first, on Michael Brown, is he -- this media blitz, is he -- are journalists receptive to that because now he's criticizing Bush and Chertoff and the administration?
DOUGLASS: Well, you can probably say that. I mean, clearly, this whole video release has been very helpful to Michael Brown. He's taken maximum advantage of it -- "Look, I warned them that it was going to be dangerous." But this video was a Rorschach already for whatever your point of view was. The Democrats could say that the president said that we were prepared. See, he wasn't even asking any questions. Michael Brown pointed to the fact that the president was asking lots of questions and was very engaged. The Republicans are also pointing to the fact that Max Mayfield said the levees would be topped, as you said, but not necessarily that they would be breached, that they would break open and flood the city. So, at the end of the day, I don't think it really moved the ball forward at all, except for Michael Brown.
KURTZ: Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center, and Brownie doing a heck of a job, at least, with his media blitz.