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Caught on Tape

Saturday, March 4, 2006

ON THE DAY before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, federal emergency officials warned President Bush that the hurricane could be "the big one," the storm the region had long feared; that the Superdome, the shelter of last resort in New Orleans, was below sea level and might well lose its roof; that medical and mortuary teams might not be prepared; and that the levees might not hold back the floodwaters. Mr. Bush, speaking during a videoconference, a tape of which was obtained by the Associated Press, responded by reassuring state officials that "we are fully prepared."

Without a doubt, the tape provides evidence that the White House received ample warning of the catastrophe. Yet within days of that

videoconference, Mr. Bush would excuse the federal government's extraordinarily poor performance by telling an interviewer that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." Moreover, at the time of the conference the White House had no idea whether federal emergency services were truly prepared. On the tape, the president doesn't ask any questions about preparedness, and there is no evidence in documents since released that he was any more engaged before or after the conference. Had anyone called the Defense Department? Was the National Guard en route? Were local Army bases prepared to help? Were emergency food and water supplies in place? The president, like everyone around him, appears to have assumed that everything would run like clockwork, just as it was supposed to on paper.

Before Louisiana state and city officials get too excited about this video, it's worth noting that similar criticisms could be lodged against them. Another tape recently released to the AP reveals that Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) reassured the president that the levees had held -- three hours after they had broken. New Orleans officials also understood in advance of Katrina the scale of the potential catastrophe -- they had carried out simulations of a levee breach -- but were unable to cope. Even some specific consequences of the hurricane, such as the failure of low-income people to leave the city, had been predicted. Yet little was done to accommodate them, either.

The tape adds to a growing body of evidence that the disaster was a failure of execution, not prediction. That indicates to us that federal and local government employees must spend more time carrying out practice exercises and involve more people in disaster planning. It also should tell the nation something about the value of leadership. The Gulf Coast might have suffered less had the president just asked a few people the right questions.

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