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Transcripts: Bush was told of levees' possible failure before Katrina

WASHINGTON—President Bush was warned about Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact on New Orleans' levees before the storm hit, according to transcripts of emergency briefings that Bush received. The transcripts appear to contradict his assertions that no one anticipated the failure of levees that flooded the city.

Transcripts of the briefings, first reported by The Associated Press and also obtained by Knight Ridder, show that Bush was told in stark detail about Katrina's potential deadly impact and that he heard a top hurricane expert express "grave concerns" about the ability of the levees to withstand what turned out to be a catastrophic hurricane. They also show that Bush asked no questions.

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown said that before the storm slammed into the Gulf Coast, he and the nation's top hurricane scientist did all they could to convince Bush, the White House staff and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that the big one was about to happen.

"I don't know how he (Bush) couldn't understand how bad it was or bad it could be," Brown said in an interview with Knight Ridder. National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield worried about breached levees, and Brown talked about how the Superdome, which was destined to be the home for thousands of evacuees, was below sea level and at risk of flooding. He also talked about trouble evacuating prisons and hospitals—all before Katrina hit.

Bush, in post-hurricane comments, insisted that his administration had no warning that the levees were in danger.

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," Bush said on Sept. 1. "They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And, as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded."

The revelation that Bush was warned in advance about Katrina's destructive power is another blow to an administration whose integrity and competence has come under fire for its response to the hurricane, the ill-fated Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination, its handling of a transaction that would let a United Arab Emirates company manage cargo terminals at six major U.S. ports, and its conduct of the war in Iraq.

"It's devastating that the president would ask no questions," said David Gergen, a former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton who's now a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "If he sat there mum in a full briefing ... that will only confirm the suspicions of a lot of opponents."

White House officials said Wednesday night that the transcripts and video obtained by AP show only a few moments in time and don't reflect that Bush was engaged before, during and after the hurricane hit.

"He issued emergency disaster declarations ahead of the storm. He told people in the region to listen to the warnings of state and local officials," said Blair Jones, a White House spokesman. "He received multiple briefings from multiple officials. ... He was engaged."

Republicans close to the administration said they feared that the video and transcripts will add another log to an already blazing political fire that could jeopardize the party's control of Congress in the November midterm elections.

Brown said he couldn't understand how the president and the White House staff could say in the days following Katrina that no one knew how bad it would be when they were briefed extensively. Brown said he thinks that the president misspoke.

"How could anyone be not concerned" beforehand, Brown asked. "Maybe I could have screamed at the president or screamed at Chertoff, but I didn't have time for that."

Brown said he told the White House and Chertoff in an early afternoon briefing on Aug. 29, the day Katrina hit, that there was massive flooding. Chertoff's deputies testified before a Senate committee last month that they went home that Monday thinking New Orleans was still dry.

Part of the problem, Brown said, was that he was surrounded by disaster and reports of mayhem while in Baton Rouge, La., and he couldn't conceive that others didn't comprehend the magnitude of the disaster.

On Aug. 30, when he told Chertoff that 90 percent of New Orleans was flooded, it sunk in to the president, Brown said. "I can see he's visibly taken aback by that," Brown said, recalling the president's demeanor as "one of dismay—he was very upset by what I described."

During the briefings before and after Katrina, Bush and the White House seemed to understand the severity of the catastrophe, Brown said. "In my conversations with the president ... he (Bush) knew what was going on. The president is a former governor; he's dealt with hurricanes," Brown said.

Bush's questions in post-Katrina briefings were specifically about levees and hospitals and showed a knowledge of details, Brown said.

In a conference call before Katrina hit, as Brown and Mayfield were warning of doom and gloom, Bush didn't ask any questions, which Brown described as normal. Instead, the president gave what Brown called a "pep talk" to make sure that governors and department agencies were ready and had what they needed, which Brown said was typical for pre-disaster conference calls.

Brown said what was disturbing about the pre-disaster conference call was Chertoff.

According to the 428-page National Response Plan, Chertoff is in charge of federal response, but he asked only about whether Defense Department assets are available and whether anyone had dealt with the Pentagon.

Brown said he was surprised by the questions because it showed how out of touch Chertoff was. Defense officials were at the table beside FEMA and always had been.

Spokesmen for Chertoff and FEMA couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday night.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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