Friday, February 10, 2006

They Knew — But What Did They Do?

From the New York Times:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Bush administration officials said they had been caught by surprise when they were told on Tuesday, Aug. 30, that a levee had broken, allowing floodwaters to engulf New Orleans.

Investigators have found evidence that federal officials at the White House and elsewhere learned of the levee break in New Orleans earlier than was first suggested.

But Congressional investigators have now learned that an eyewitness account of the flooding from a federal emergency official reached the Homeland Security Department’s headquarters starting at 9:27 p.m. the day before, and the White House itself at midnight.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency official, Marty Bahamonde, first heard of a major levee breach Monday morning. By late Monday afternoon, Mr. Bahamonde had hitched a ride on a Coast Guard helicopter over the breach at the 17th Street Canal to confirm the extensive flooding. He then telephoned his report to FEMA headquarters in Washington, which notified the Homeland Security Department.

“FYI from FEMA,” said an e-mail message from the agency’s public affairs staff describing the helicopter flight, sent Monday night at 9:27 to the chief of staff of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and recently unearthed by investigators. Conditions, the message said, “are far more serious than media reports are currently reflecting. Finding extensive flooding and more stranded people than they had thought — also a number of fires.”


But the alert did not seem to register. Even the next morning, President Bush, on vacation in Texas, was feeling relieved that New Orleans had “dodged the bullet,” he later recalled. Mr. Chertoff, similarly confident, flew Tuesday to Atlanta for a briefing on avian flu. With power out from the high winds and movement limited, even news reporters in New Orleans remained unaware of the full extent of the levee breaches until Tuesday.

The federal government let out a sigh of relief when in fact it should have been sounding an “all hands on deck” alarm, the investigators have found.

Even if you give the White House the maximum benefit of the doubt, the best you can come up with is that they couldn’t find their ass with both hands in a hall of mirrors. The worst is that they ignored not just the data and documents from their own staff and FEMA, but from news reports, the Weather Channel, and the evidence of the storm’s impact on South Florida (hi there, remember us?). So either they were completely unaware of what was going on, which demonstrates gross incompetence, or they just didn’t care, which demonstrates depraved indifference. Either way, it tells you a lot about just how well prepared they are to deal with natural or man-made disasters.

It should be interesting to see what Michael “HeckuvaJob” Brown has to say today when he testifies before Congress. And it will be interesting to see how the White Houses tries to figure out a way to blame it on the Democrats.