White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend acknowledged yesterday that the government failed to prepare adequately for the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, noting studies of New Orleans's vulnerability to flooding and lessons from flawed U.S. responses to past natural and terrorist disasters.
Discussing the administration's internal inquiry into the response to the Aug. 29 hurricane at length for the first time, Townsend told reporters that the broad review she is leading is incomplete but that some initial findings are clear. U.S. officials thought before Katrina's arrival that "we were appropriately positioned and we had the right mechanisms in place," but the long-feared rupture of the New Orleans levee system and the inundation of the sub-sea-level city belied such confidence, she said.
"It turned out we were all wrong," Townsend said. "We had not adequately anticipated."
The admission came after weeks of embarrassing disclosures of confusion of roles within the Federal Emergency Management Agency under a new national disaster plan. It also came amid intramural sniping within an administration that prizes loyalty, underscoring how criticism of its handling of the domestic disaster that killed more than 1,200 people and wiped out 250,000 homes in the Gulf Coast has engulfed FEMA and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security.
Townsend delivered a sharp message in President Bush's name to tamp down internal criticism amid a swirl of House and Senate investigations, saying: "It's clear we want to quickly identify and fix problems and not play a blame game. . . . Lessons are what the president wants, not finger-pointing," she said. "He is less interested in last time. . . . His concern is with the next time."
Even before she spoke yesterday, however, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff responded to Senate testimony this week that ousted FEMA director Michael D. Brown and other top officials ignored a staffer's eyewitness report about the collapse of the 17th Avenue Canal levee on the Monday the storm hit. The dismissal of accounts of catastrophic flooding by FEMA's only person in New Orleans, Marty Bahamonde, delayed federal supplies and efforts to move 50,000 people out of harm's way for nearly a day, senators said.
According to Bahamonde, Brown said he would call the White House after Bahamonde reported to him on the night of Aug. 29 that he had observed a massive break on the Lake Pontchartrain levee and flooding over 80 percent of the city. Chertoff said Brown told him no such thing that day.
"The tenor of his discussions on Monday . . . was, this was bad, but it could have been worse," Chertoff said in an interview, adding that he learned of Bahamonde's report only after meeting him personally days later. "There was not a report to me until the following morning that there was a significant breach of the 17th Street levee."
Asked what Brown told the White House, Townsend said: "I have to tell you I am unaware of those specific communications. But obviously . . . if there is some significant fact in there that we need to understand to make sure that we fix the information flow, we're going to do that." Bush was briefed by 5 a.m. Tuesday about the city's rising waters.
Meanwhile, another federal agency involved in disaster response, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said yesterday that its official timeline had discounted eyewitness reports by its top official in New Orleans, Col. Richard Wagenaar, confirming a levee breach Monday night. Instead, the Corps said the break was confirmed at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
"We probably had some calls over the period of the night, 'Hey, this might be going on,' " said Lauren Solis, spokeswoman for the Corps task force working in New Orleans, "but with the storm and everything else, we [the Corps's district engineers] went out the first we possibly could, which was daybreak Aug. 30 . . . and confirmed with our own eyes."
Townsend said yesterday that she expects her 12-person staff's final report around the end of the year -- in time for action by Congress, if necessary, before next year's hurricane season. But she noted that she has preliminarily concluded that "the failure of communications" within the federal government and with state and local officials was the "single most important" contributor to the Katrina breakdowns.
Townsend said the results are incomplete: "We will go wherever the facts lead us." But, she said, the administration has already reacted far more aggressively ahead of Hurricane Wilma's expected landfall as a Category 1 or 2 storm next week in Florida than before the far more powerful Katrina.
Though Bush was criticized for not returning to the White House from his Texas ranch until two days after Katrina's landfall, Townsend said, the president has sought regular private briefings and an "ongoing dialogue."
"Frankly," she said, "he's very personally interested in getting updated as we uncover additional facts and learn lessons."
Townsend's remarks signaled a change from the administration's early blaming of New Orleans and Louisiana officials for the Katrina failures, and from Bush's early statement that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."
"There were prior [congressional] reports about emergency preparedness and response. There have been a number of studies," Townsend said, citing a 2004 FEMA planning scenario that considered what would happen if a major cyclone hit and flooded New Orleans. "If there were lessons that should have been taken from that, why weren't they?"