Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Tapes Refresh Debate Over Katrina, Levees

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Much of the controversy has focused on 10 words: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

President Bush made the statement in a television interview last Sept. 1, three days after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and inundated much of New Orleans.

Now, the disclosure of videotapes and transcripts of meetings among federal and state disaster-management officials just before and during the storm's Aug. 29 landfall has refreshed the debate over what the government knew about the levees protecting New Orleans - and when.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan has said Bush's comments were not intended to suggest that no one had anticipated levee failures. Instead, McClellan says, the president meant that once the storm had initially passed many people believed the region had escaped the "worst-case scenario."

The transcripts and videotapes have touched off a brushfire among liberal and conservative bloggers, provided midterm election-year ammunition to Democrats and brought a defense by the White House.

There is no specific mention of levees being breached at Bush's videoconference with federal, state and local disaster management officials on Aug. 28, the day before Katrina's landfall. A videotape of that meeting was one of two videos and seven transcripts of Katrina-related briefings reported by The Associated Press last week.

But there were dire warnings of a gigantic storm that could overflow the levees at that session and at other pre-landfall conferences. And specific mention of possible breaches was raised at an Aug. 29 teleconference that included Joe Hagin, deputy White House chief of staff.

The Army Corps of Engineers considers a breach a hole developing in a levee rather than an overrun, or water flowing over the top.

But civil engineers understand that once a levee is "topped," floodwaters can rapidly erode the structural base of the levee and nearly always result in a breach, according to AP interviews with officials from the Corps of Engineers and others.

The White House's own "lessons learned" review of the federal response issued last month compared overtopping to a breach of a levee.

"Overtopping is a term used to describe the situation where the water level rises above the height of the levee or floodwall and consequently overtops, or flows over the structure. A breach is a break in the levee or floodwall. A prolonged overtopping can actually cause a levee or floodwall breach," the report said.

"In general, a breach can lead to more significant flooding than an overtopping since breaches take time to repair and until repaired continue to allow water to flow until the water level has receded below the height of the breach. Overtopping, on the other hand, will stop as soon as the water level recedes below the top of the levee or floodwall."

"Although the consequences are significantly different, from outward appearances, it is often difficult to differentiate a breach from an overtopping," the White House report said.

Charles Aubeny, an engineer at Texas A&M University, said that if levees are overtopped that "will usually erode out the levees." Breaches can also occur when the water seeps through the levees or if the water weakens the soil and a "stability failure" follows. Some experts say that this may take some time to happen - days, weeks or even months.

There's a long history to concerns about the reliability of New Orleans' levees.

In 1965, after Hurricane Betsy caused extensive flooding, Congress ordered the levees to be reinforced to withstand the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane. In July 2004, FEMA sponsored a "Hurricane Pam" exercise that simulated massive flooding that could kill up to 60,000 people and destroy buildings and roads.

According to a GOP-written House of Representatives report released in February, the main reason for the Hurricane Pam exercise "was the well-known potential for levee failure and catastrophic flooding in the metropolitan area."

For years, the Army Corps of Engineers and others warned that New Orleans levees might not withstand a major storm, according to the House report. "Levees were designed for a 'standard' hurricane, not the most severe hurricanes."

As Katrina moved into the Gulf of Mexico last August, the National Weather Service deemed it a Category 5 monster with 160 mph winds. By the time it hit landfall early Aug. 29, its winds had diminished somewhat, downgrading the hurricane's category. Experts disagree on just how strong the winds were at landfall, but some estimates put them as strong as 145 mph - still far stronger than the levees were built to withstand.

Video of the Sunday, Aug. 28, teleconference shows the National Hurricane Center's Max Mayfield warning Bush and the others that the levees could be topped. Mayfield called it a "very, very grave concern." Bush was monitoring Katrina's progress from his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Later Sunday, he summoned reporters to the ranch and told them: "We cannot stress enough the danger this hurricane poses to Gulf Coast communities." Bush urged people in the path of the storm to head for safer ground.

His comments echoed those of local officials. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said in a CNN interview on Aug. 27 that the storm could bring a 15-to-20-foot surge of water and the people of New Orleans "will not survive that if indeed it happens." New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told a news conference on Aug. 28: "The storm surge most likely will topple our levee system."

Blanco and Nagin's comments were mentioned in the House report, which concluded governmental response to Katrina was marked by "organizational paralysis."

The Associated Press initially reported on March 1 that federal disaster officials warned Bush and his homeland security chief at the Aug. 28 session that the storm could breach levees. On March 3, The AP moved a clarification that the story should have made clear that Bush was warned about floodwaters overrunning the levees rather than the levees breaking.

Regardless of terminology, everybody involved with the situation had plenty of reason to worry before and during about the levees and whether they would protect the city from flooding.

In that final Aug. 28 briefing before the hurricane hit, Bush asked no questions but assured soon-to-be-battered state officials: "We are fully prepared."

White House officials later sought to explain why Bush asked no questions at the briefing. They said he had been on the phone with governors in affected states and had received updates from then-FEMA chief Michael Brown and his own staff. Bush got on the videoconference to boost morale, not collect information, McClellan said - and left before it ended.

In sessions beginning Aug. 25, discussion had focused on Florida. Attention turned slowly to the Gulf Coast on the weekend as the storm crossed Florida without extensive damage. By Saturday, Aug. 27, FEMA's Brown told other participants "my gut hurts" about the potential for Gulf Coast damage. At the Aug. 28 session, he was grim, calling the storm "a big one."

Bush has drawn criticism from Democrats who say he did not give Katrina the attention it deserved. For instance, Bush on Monday - shortly after the storm's landfall - headed West on Air Force One for a previously scheduled two-day trip to Arizona and California.

Concern over possible levee breaches does show up in the transcript of a conference on Aug. 29. Participating from Air Force One, Hagin, the deputy White House chief of staff, asks about "the current status of the levee system."

Brown, who later resigned as FEMA chief under pressure, told participants he had spoken twice that day to Bush directly and that the president was "asking questions about reports of breaches."

Blanco said that, as of then, "we have not breached the levee" but "that could change." The Louisiana governor said, however, that water in some low-lying areas was 8 to 10 feet deep.

In a document it called "Setting the Record Straight," the White House said Bush's Aug. 28 videoconference "was open to the press and the full transcript of this videoconference was released to Congress and the public in the fall of 2005."

However, only the opening portion of the conference, where Bush made brief remarks, was witnessed by a small news media pool. And full transcripts of that and other sessions were not released by either the administration or Congress.

Brown said Bush and other top officials knew from those briefings there was a serious chance that New Orleans' levees would be breached. "Everybody else knew and clearly on our conference calls it was being discussed," Brown said in a March 1 interview with The Associated Press.

Brown, interviewed by KHOW Radio in Denver on Monday night, characterized the distinction between levees being breached and overtopped as "a matter of semantics."

"I can tell you everyone involved in that videotape and in my conversations with the president and with the chief of staff, our concern was always the breach of the levees," Brown said.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?