WASHINGTON – The earliest official report of a New Orleans levee breach came at 8:30 a.m., hours after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore. Word of the possible breach surfaced at the White House less than three hours later, at 11:13 a.m.
In all, 28 federal, state and local agencies reported levee failures on Aug. 29, according to a timeline of e-mails, situation updates and weather reports that Senate Democrats say raise questions about whether the government moved quickly enough to rescue storm victims from massive flooding.
The documents were released in advance of a Senate hearing Friday at which Michael Brown, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was set to testify.
Brown is widely considered the public face of the government's sluggish response to Katrina. But he signaled earlier this week that he was prepared to discuss his storm communications with President Bush and other top White House officials — a possible signal that his testimony would assign blame elsewhere.
The White House has barred some top advisers and staffers from answering Senate investigators' questions about the administration's response, saying that certain discussions and documents must remain confidential. But Brown, who quit FEMA shortly after the storm and left the federal payroll Nov. 2, is no longer covered by that confidentiality protection.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president and his top aides were fully aware of the massive flooding — and less concerned whether it was caused by levee breaches, overtoppings or failed pumps, all three of which were being reported at the time.
"We knew there was flooding and that's why the No. 1 effort in those early hours was on search and rescue, and saving life and limb," Duffy said.
Shortly after the disaster, Bush said, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." He later said his comment was meant to suggest that there had been a false sense of relief that the levees had held when the storm passed, only to break a few hours later.
The Bush administration has said it knew definitively early Tuesday, Aug. 30, the day after the storm, that the levees had been breached, based on an Army Corps of Engineers assessment.
Democrats said the documents showed there was little excuse for the tardy federal response.
"The first communication came at 8:30 a.m.," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "So it is inexplicable to me how those responsible for the federal response could have woken up Tuesday morning unaware of this obviously catastrophic situation."
The first internal White House communication about levee failures came at 11:13 a.m. on Aug. 29 in a "Katrina Spot Report" by the White House Homeland Security Council.
"Flooding is significant throughout the region and a levee in New Orleans has reportedly been breached sending 6-8 feet of water throughout the 9th ward area of the city," the internal report said.