WASHINGTON – As Hurricane Katrina loomed over the Gulf Coast, federal and state officials agonized over the threat to levees and lives. Hours after the catastrophic storm hit, Louisiana's governor believed New Orleans' crucial floodwalls were still intact.
"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 — the day the storm hit the Gulf coast.
"We heard a report unconfirmed, I think, we have not breached the levee," she said on a video of the day's disaster briefing that was obtained Thursday night by The Associated Press. "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.
Not until the day after Katrina roared ashore did the White House confirm that its surge had, in fact, breached the levees — a delay that critics charge held up repair efforts and allowed the deadly flooding to worsen.
Michael Brown, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief who resigned under fire for mishandling the disaster, said Friday that rescue workers should have been sent to New Orleans earlier, regardless of whether reports of a breach had been confirmed.
"In emergency management, you prepare for the worst," Brown said on CBS' "The Early Show." "So, whether there had been a breach or a topping of the levees, we still need to be getting rescue people in there immediately."
The rampant confusion is highlighted in the two FEMA video briefings, obtained this week by the AP, revealing disaster plans and damage reports detailed by officials as the storm smashed into the coast.
The tapes — and particularly the pre-storm Aug. 28 video that includes an appearance by President Bush — prompted widespread criticism by Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike who said the government should have been better prepared for the storm that flooded New Orleans and killed more than 1,300 people.
That video "makes it perfectly clear once again that this disaster was not out of the blue or unforeseeable," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said Thursday. "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."
After AP's broadcast this week showing some of the Katrina briefings, the Homeland Security Department refused Thursday to release videos from five other days immediately before and after Katrina hit. The agency insisted last year — in response to AP's requests under the Freedom of Information Act — there were no such tapes. Now it acknowledges more tapes exist.
"We do have tapes," DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said. "We have the tapes from the v-tels (video teleconferences), and we've provided the transcripts — they've been in the public domain for months."
In the Aug. 29 video, 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 FEMA headquarters in Washington. She sounds uncertain about the reliability of her information and cautioned that the situation "could change."
Blanco spokeswoman Denise Bottcher said Thursday that "our people on the ground were telling us that there could be overtopping and breaching, but it was hard to tell" by the noon briefing.
Brown, who was at the federal emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, La., was heard but not seen on the video. He implored officials to "push the envelope as far as you can," noting that he had already spoken to Bush twice that day and described the president as "very, very interested in this situation."
Brown has criticized the White House for miscommunications that led to some delays and said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff should resign. But he said in an interview Thursday he never blamed Bush. 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.
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 attics who were begging for help.
The Homeland Security Department played down the new video. 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 overtop levees, put lives at risk in the Superdome and overwhelm rescuers. Bush and Chertoff were among those on the videotaped call.
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.