WASHINGTON – In the hectic, confused hours after Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast, Louisiana's governor hesitantly but mistakenly assured the Bush administration that New Orleans' protective levees were intact, according to a new video obtained by The Associated Press showing briefings that day with federal officials.
"We keep getting reports in some places that maybe water is coming over the levees," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said shortly after noon on Aug. 29, according to the video that was obtained Thursday night. "We heard a report unconfirmed, I think, we have not breached the levee. I think we have not breached the levee at this time."
In fact, the National Weather Service received a report of a levee breach and issued a flash-flood warning as early as 9:12 a.m. that day, according to the White House's formal recounting of events the day Katrina struck.
The timing of the levees breach has been a key issue in exhaustive reviews of failures to respond to Katrina and highlights miscommunication about the scope of the storm's damage at all levels of government.
The new video, which runs 45 minutes, details uncertainty and despair among state and local emergency response officials as they began chronicling the disaster that swept across 90 square miles in the Gulf Coast.
Blanco is not shown in the video but is heard as a disembodied voice speaking from an emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, La., to 11 people sitting around a table at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington. She sounds uncertain about the reliability of her information and cautioned that the situation "could change."
She reported that floodwaters were rising in parts of the city "where we have waters that are 8 to 10 feet deep, and we have people swimming in there."
"That's got a considerable amount of water itself," the governor said. "That's about all I know right now on the specifics that you haven't heard."
Blanco spokeswoman Denise Bottcher said Thursday that "our people on the ground were telling us that there could be over-topping and breaching, but it was hard to tell" by the noon briefing.
Another official who was heard but not seen on the video was then-FEMA Director Michael Brown, who was also at the federal emergency operations center in Baton Rouge. He implored officials to "push the envelope as far as you can," noting that he had already spoken to President Bush twice that day and described the president as "very, very interested in this situation."
"He's very engaged, and he's asking a lot of really good questions I would expect him to ask," Brown said of Bush. "I say that only because I want everyone to recognize ... how serious the situation remains."
Brown has criticized the White House for miscommunication that led to some delays but said in an interview Thursday that he never directly blamed Bush.
"I think the president was confident in the ability of FEMA to respond to this, and what I should have done was go to them earlier and say, 'Let's not wait to see how it unfolds. Let's bring everything and go overboard."'
He also said there was confusion among officials over whether levees were breached at the time of the noon video conference call. But he said he was convinced of the breach by 1 p.m.
Delays in confirming the levee breaches held up repair efforts and allowed flooding to worsen. The White House was alerted about breach reports by 6 p.m., but the administration confirmed the damage the next morning.
The video shows weather forecasters predicting the storm's path and also briefly cuts to White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin asking Blanco about the status of the levees and the situation at the Superdome in New Orleans.
By that time, an estimated 15,000 evacuees had gathered at the stadium, where food and water was beginning to run out, said Col. Jeff Smith, Louisiana's emergency preparedness deputy director. Smith also reported up to 10 feet of flooding in neighboring St. Bernard Parish and that there were 45 patients on life-support at one area hospital that lost its power.
Still, "the coordination and support we are getting from FEMA has just been outstanding," Smith said.
Mississippi officials were less complimentary, reporting significant damage to hospitals, flooded and collapsed emergency operations centers and people trapped on the roofs or in the attacks who were begging for help.
"It certainly looks like it is a catastrophic event that we all expected," said one Mississippi official, who was not identified. "I could tell you that the preliminary reports coming off of our Gulf Coast are not good, not good at all.
The Homeland Security Department played down the new video. Spokesman Russ Knocke said it "reveals nothing new because the transcript had previously been released."
The new video came to light a day after the AP obtained footage of an Aug. 28 briefing — the day before Katrina hit — that showed officials warning the storm might breach levees, put lives at risk in the Superdome and overwhelm rescuers. Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were among those on the videotaped call.
Lawmakers from both parties said the pre-Katrina briefing for Bush and top administration officials raised new questions about government response to the storm that flooded New Orleans and killed more than 1,300 people.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said the Aug. 28 video "makes it perfectly clear once again that this disaster was not out of the blue or unforeseeable. It was not only predictable, it was actually predicted. That's what made the failures in response — at the local, state and federal level — all the more outrageous."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said it "confirms what we have suspected all along," charging that Bush administration officials have "systematically misled the American people."
Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California renewed their calls for an independent commission to investigate the federal response to the hurricane.
The House and Senate have conducted separate investigations of the federal response, and the White House did its own investigation. House Democrats for the most part refused to participate in the House probe, insisting since last fall that an independent commission should be created to handle the probe.
The White House did not immediately respond Thursday to the renewed Democratic calls for an independent investigation.