White House Got Early Warning on Katrina

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By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

In the 48 hours before Hurricane Katrina hit, the White House received detailed warnings about the storm's likely impact, including eerily prescient predictions of breached levees, massive flooding, and major losses of life and property, documents show.

A 41-page assessment by the Department of Homeland Security's National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC), was delivered by e-mail to the White House's "situation room," the nerve center where crises are handled, at 1:47 a.m. on Aug. 29, the day the storm hit, according to an e-mail cover sheet accompanying the document.

The NISAC paper warned that a storm of Katrina's size would "likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching" and specifically noted the potential for levee failures along Lake Pontchartrain. It predicted economic losses in the tens of billions of dollars, including damage to public utilities and industry that would take years to fully repair. Initial response and rescue operations would be hampered by disruption of telecommunications networks and the loss of power to fire, police and emergency workers, it said.

In a second document, also obtained by The Washington Post, a computer slide presentation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, prepared for a 9 a.m. meeting on Aug. 27, two days before Katrina made landfall, compared Katrina's likely impact to that of "Hurricane Pam," a fictional Category 3 storm used in a series of FEMA disaster-preparedness exercises simulating the effects of a major hurricane striking New Orleans. But Katrina, the report warned, could be worse.

The hurricane's Category 4 storm surge "could greatly overtop levees and protective systems" and destroy nearly 90 percent of city structures, the FEMA report said. It further predicted "incredible search and rescue needs (60,000-plus)" and the displacement of more than a million residents.

The NISAC analysis accurately predicted the collapse of floodwalls along New Orleans's Lake Pontchartrain shoreline, an event that the report described as "the greatest concern." The breach of two canal floodwalls near the lake was the key failure that left much of central New Orleans underwater and accounted for the bulk of Louisiana's 1,100 Katrina-related deaths.

The documents shed new light on the extent on the administration's foreknowledge about Katrina's potential for unleashing epic destruction on New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities and towns. President Bush, in a televised interview three days after Katrina hit, suggested that the scale of the flooding in New Orleans was unexpected. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm," Bush said in a Sept. 1 interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."

The reports echo warnings given around the same time by Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, who began sounding the alarm when forecasters first placed Katrina on a collision with the Gulf Coast on the evening of Aug. 26. But the FEMA and NISAC reports provided much more detail and covered a wider range of possible consequences, from damaged ports and oil terminals to spikes in energy prices.

The White House declined to comment yesterday on the specifics of the reports but noted that the president has repeatedly acknowledged his displeasure with preparations for Katrina. "No one was pleased with the response by the government -- federal, state or local," spokesman Trent Duffy said. "We have already taken steps to be better prepared for future hurricanes, as you saw in the response to the hurricanes that followed Katrina."

The disclosure of the reports comes as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee prepares to convene new hearings today into the federal government's performance during Katrina. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the committee's ranking Democrat, responded to the documents in a statement saying the administration's failure to fully heed the warnings of its analysts "compounded the tragedy."

"Two to three days before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, it became clear that it would be the 'Big One' everyone has been talking about for years," Lieberman said.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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