WASHINGTON, D.C.—In strokes large and small, the congressional inquiry into the government’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster is beginning to paint just the kind of picture of incompetence and neglect that the Bush administration hoped the public would never see. On Friday, former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown sounded like a Ninth Ward resident stuck on a rooftop when he complained to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, “I feel somewhat abandoned.”
It now turns out that the federal chain of command knew—or should have known—that flood-control measures in New Orleans failed on the day Katrina made landfall. A FEMA official toured the area on the afternoon of Monday, August 29, hours after the storm hit, and saw that the levees had been breached and severe flooding had begun. Documents turned up by the congressional investigation show that both FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security got a report of this official’s observations at 9:27 that night. The White House had the word by at least midnight, it’s now clear, instead of having been surprised by the news—as it had claimed—on the morning of August 30.
Still, the real story here is not so much who knew what when, but why the White House, led by Karl Rove and with President Bush as the principal player, needed a cover-up at all.
August 29, 6:10 a.m. Katrina makes landfall.
Sometime before 8 a.m. The storm surge sends water over the banks of the Industrial Canal; the Army Corps of Engineers reports that “a barge broke loose and crashed through the floodwall, opening a breach that accelerated flooding into the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.”
8 a.m. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin appears on the Today show and says, “I’ve gotten reports this morning that there is already water coming over some of the levee systems. In the Lower Ninth Ward, we’ve had one of our pumping stations to stop operating, so we will have significant flooding. It is just a matter of how much.”
By 9 a.m. The Times Picayune reports that floodwaters in the Lakeview district have risen above porch steps. Around the same time, the 17th Street levee and the London Avenue canal are discovered breached. St. Bernard Parish reports widespread flooding. Parish council chair Joey DiFatta says, “Water is inundating everywhere. We have buildings and roofs collapsing.”
That morning, Bush tells reporters he has spoken to Homeland Security secretary Mike Chertoff. “So I called him. I said, ‘Are you working with the governor?’ He said, ‘You bet we are.’ ”
By afternoon, the federal response became one grand photo op.
Brown, then head of FEMA, asked Chertoff for permission to send 1,000 Homeland Security employees to the region and gave them two days to report. Brown wrote that they were to “convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public.” Meanwhile Brown told fire departments outside Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana not to send trucks or workers without explicit directions from state or local government.
And even as the situation grew dire that first day, Bush and officials carried on as though nothing much were happening.
Hours after numerous firsthand reports about the levee breaks, Bush landed in Arizona to have a piece of birthday cake with Senator John McCain, then pushed his Medicare drug initiative with seniors at a golf resort. Soon he was off to California for more discussions with seniors about the Medicare plans. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took in a San Diego Padres baseball game. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended Spamalot in New York City and went shopping for shoes on Fifth Avenue.
As conditions worsened, Chertoff told reporters, “We are extremely pleased with the response that every element of the federal government, all of our federal partners, have made to this terrible tragedy.”
On August 31, in increasing desperation, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco began calling the White House. She got shunted around until reaching Fran Townsend, the homeland security adviser, who was sympathetic but couldn’t give her any specifics.
At 4 p.m. Bush finally addressed the Katrina situation in a speech The New York Times described as seeming “casual to the point of carelessness.”
The next morning, Thursday, Bush was quoted as saying, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” But FEMA itself had run a disaster simulation in 2004 that showed a storm like Katrina could cause the levees to fail, and the agency had issued a warning to that effect just before Katrina hit.
By then Americans were hearing and seeing for themselves stories of desperate people stranded in city homes, hospitals, hotels, and shelters. At 2 p.m. on September 1, Mayor Nagin pleaded in a live radio interview for action by the federal government: “This is a desperate SOS. Right now we are out of resources at the convention center. We need buses. Currently the convention center is unsanitary and unsafe, and we’re running out of supplies.”
Little wonder that, as the press reported widely on Friday, the White House put presidential adviser and campaign mastermind Karl Rove on damage control.
On Saturday morning, Bush addressed the situation from the Rose Garden and posed for a photo op with a Coast Guard helicopter and crew standing in the background. Next, Bush backed up his main man. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” the president said.
He flew into New Orleans later that day for more photo ops, more covering up. “Touring this critical site yesterday with the president, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe,” Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu would say on Sunday. “Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment.”
Firefighters were pulled into action. “A team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana,” reported The Salt Lake Tribune. “The crew’s first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated area.”
The president again endorsed the federal effort: “I am satisfied with the response. I am not satisfied with all the results.”
Who could be at fault? The White House tried to shift attention by blaming Democratic governor Blanco, claiming she never declared the state of emergency necessary to bring in federal relief. This turned out to be untrue and The Washington Post, for one, issued a correction.
Though perhaps trying to sound compassionate, the president himself quite clearly added his voice to those blaming the whole thing on local officials. “[T]he magnitude of responding to a crisis over a disaster area that is larger than the size of Great Britain has created tremendous problems that have strained state and local capabilities. The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need,” he said.
Now with the congressional inquiry into the government’s response, they might at last find out why.
Additional reporting: Colin Gustafson, Michael Roston