By Peter Baker and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 3, 2006
Three days after Hurricane Katrina wiped out most of New Orleans, President Bush appeared on television and said, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." His staff has spent the past six months trying to take back, modify or explain away those 10 words.
The release of a pre-storm video showing officials warning Bush during a conference call that the hurricane approaching the Gulf Coast posed a dire threat to the city and its levees has revived a dispute the White House had hoped to put behind it: Was the president misinformed, misspoken or misleading?
The video leaves little doubt that key people in government did anticipate that the levees might not hold. To critics, especially Democrats but even some Republicans, it reinforces the conclusion that the government at its highest levels failed to respond aggressively enough to the danger bearing down on New Orleans. To Bush aides, the seeming conflict between Bush's public statements and the private deliberations captured on tape reflects little more than an inartful statement opponents are exploiting for political purposes.
"This makes it perfectly clear once again that this disaster was not out of the blue or unforeseeable," said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has been critical of the handling of Katrina. "It was not only predictable, it was actually predicted. That's what makes the failures in response -- at the local, state and federal level -- all the more outrageous."
As the debate reached a new boil, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the resignation yesterday of Matthew Broderick, the department's director of operations coordination, who will leave March 31. Chertoff said Broderick wants to spend more time with his family, but he is the second person associated with the Katrina response to resign, following Michael D. Brown, who directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And in a sign of congressional concern over the fitful recovery, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) were leading a bipartisan delegation yesterday on a three-day tour of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.
In its substance, the video reveals nothing that was not already known from previously released transcripts and government investigations. But in politics, images carry a power far beyond written words, and the video, played again and again on cable television, instantly provided new fuel for an emotional debate.
With midterm elections in the fall, such a video could return in the form of campaign commercials attacking Bush, and by extension Republicans, for losing an American city. In the shorter term, Bush advisers worry that it will reopen Katrina wounds and complicate the president's efforts to bring together quarreling parties to focus on reconstructing the city and region.
"We're going back over very, very old ground," said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. "The real danger here is it threatens to unravel the good relations we've built with state and local officials."
Echoing Bush's own later explanation, Duffy said yesterday that the president in his now-famous Sept. 1 comment did not mean that no one had ever anticipated breaches of the levees that guard New Orleans from flooding. Instead, Duffy said, Bush meant only that after the storm's landfall, many people believed New Orleans had escaped its most powerful winds.
Reflecting the sensitivity of the controversy, the White House issued a three-page statement yesterday to "set the record straight," defend the president's actions before, during and after the storm, and accuse Democrats of using the new video "to falsely attack the White House's Hurricane Katrina's response." The statement said the video showed that Bush was fully engaged and promising aid to state and local officials, and it cited other actions and testimony indicating that the president was worried about the levees and ordering help. At the same time, it added that "he was not satisfied with the federal response."
Broderick's actions have become part of the debate about that response. As head of the Homeland Security Operations Center, he acknowledged to Senate investigators last month that he went home the night of Aug. 29 aware of conflicting reports of levee failures, but did not grasp the severity until the next morning at 6, and notified Robert B. Stephan, an assistant secretary, at 11:30 a.m. Investigators later found that reports of levee breaches emerged from New Orleans starting at noon Aug. 29 and continued through the day.
"That's a failure on my part not to have informed Mr. Stephan earlier," testified Broderick, a retired Marine general who began the center after 30 years in the military. "It's my job to make sure that everyone knows what's going on."
In Senate testimony, Chertoff said that he trusted Broderick implicitly but added that "I would rather him reach me earlier with less-perfect information." Yesterday, Chertoff thanked Broderick for his service to the nation and praised him for "always demonstrating coolness in crisis and energy and integrity in the execution of his duties, under the most difficult circumstances."
The video, obtained by the Associated Press, shows portions of an Aug. 28 conference call in which Brown warned that Katrina was, "to put it mildly, the big one" and the head of the National Hurricane Center suggested the levees were at risk. Bush offered a statement of support but asked no questions.
"My reaction is that this video further points to the need for an independent commission" to investigate, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is among the lawmakers on this week's Gulf Coast tour. "What we are about is meeting the needs of people. The video is an eloquent statement. It speaks very clearly to the fact that there was a predictable tragedy that was about to befall the people of that region, and the administration's response was inadequate."
Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said he plans to hold as many four hearings on Bush's request for $19.8 billion in additional recovery funding. "We need more money," he said, "and we're going to get it."