WASHINGTON - In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Bush administration officials said they had been caught by surprise when they were told on Tuesday, Aug. 30, that a levee had broken, allowing floodwaters to engulf New Orleans.
But Congressional investigators have now learned that an eyewitness account of the flooding from a federal emergency official reached the Homeland Security Department's headquarters starting at 9:27 p.m. the day before, and the White House itself at midnight.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency official, Marty Bahamonde, first heard of a major levee breach Monday morning. By late Monday afternoon, Mr. Bahamonde had hitched a ride on a Coast Guard helicopter over the breach at the 17th Street Canal to confirm the extensive flooding. He then telephoned his report to FEMA headquarters in Washington, which notified the Homeland Security Department.
A photo taken by a federal emergency official the day Hurricane Katrina arrived showed the broken 17th Street Canal levee in New Orleans. (Marty Bahamonde/FEMA)
"FYI from FEMA," said an e-mail message from the agency's public affairs staff describing the helicopter flight, sent Monday night at 9:27 to the chief of staff of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and recently unearthed by investigators. Conditions, the message said, "are far more serious than media reports are currently reflecting. Finding extensive flooding and more stranded people than they had thought — also a number of fires."
Michael D. Brown, who was the director of FEMA until he resigned under pressure on Sept. 12, said in a telephone interview Thursday that he personally notified the White House of this news that night, though he declined to identify the official he spoke to.
White House officials have confirmed to Congressional investigators that the report of the levee break arrived there at midnight, and Trent Duffy, the White House spokesman, acknowledged as much in an interview this week, though he said it was surrounded with conflicting reports.
But the alert did not seem to register. Even the next morning, President Bush, on vacation in Texas, was feeling relieved that New Orleans had "dodged the bullet," he later recalled. Mr. Chertoff, similarly confident, flew Tuesday to Atlanta for a briefing on avian flu. With power out from the high winds and movement limited, even news reporters in New Orleans remained unaware of the full extent of the levee breaches until Tuesday.
The federal government let out a sigh of relief when in fact it should have been sounding an "all hands on deck" alarm, the investigators have found.
This chain of events, along with dozens of other critical flashpoints in the Hurricane Katrina saga, has for the first time been laid out in detail following five months of work by two Congressional committees that have assembled nearly 800,000 pages of documents, testimony and interviews from more than 250 witnesses. Investigators now have the documentation to pinpoint some of the fundamental errors and oversights that combined to produce what is universally agreed to be a flawed government response to the worst natural disaster in modern American history.
On Friday, Mr. Brown, the former FEMA director, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He is expected to confirm that he notified the White House on that Monday, the day the hurricane hit, that the levee had given way, the city was flooding and his crews were overwhelmed.
"There is no question in my mind that at the highest levels of the White House they understood how grave the situation was," Mr. Brown said in the interview.
The problem, he said, was the handicapping of FEMA when it was turned into a division of the Homeland Security Department in 2003.
"The real story is with this new structure," he said. "Why weren't more things done, or what prevented or delayed Mike Brown from being able to do what he would have done and did do in any other disaster?"
Although Mr. Bahamonde said in October that he had notified Mr. Brown that Monday, it was not known until recently what Mr. Brown or the Homeland Security Department did with that information, or when the White House was told.
Missteps at All Levels
It has been known since the earliest days of the storm that all levels of government — from the White House to the Department of Homeland Security to the Louisiana Capitol to New Orleans City Hall — were unprepared, uncommunicative and phlegmatic in protecting Gulf Coast residents from the floodwaters and their aftermath. But an examination of the latest evidence by The New York Times shines a new light on the key players involved in the important turning points: what they said, what they did and what they did not do, all of which will soon be written up in the committees' investigative reports.
Among the findings that emerge in the mass of documents and testimony were these:
- Federal officials knew long before the storm showed up on the radar that 100,000 people in New Orleans had no way to escape a major hurricane on their own and that the city had finished only 10 percent of a plan for how to evacuate its largely poor, African-American population.
- Mr. Chertoff failed to name a principal federal official to oversee the response before the hurricane arrived, an omission a top Pentagon official acknowledged to investigators complicated the coordination of the response. His department also did not plan enough to prevent a conflict over which agency should be in charge of law enforcement support. And Mr. Chertoff was either poorly informed about the levee break or did not recognize the significance of the initial report about it, investigators said.
- The Louisiana transportation secretary, Johnny B. Bradberry, who had legal responsibility for the evacuation of thousands of people in nursing homes and hospitals, admitted bluntly to investigators, "We put no plans in place to do any of this."
- Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans at first directed his staff to prepare a mandatory evacuation of his city on Saturday, two days before the storm hit, but he testified that he had not done so that day while he and other city officials struggled to decide if they should exempt hospitals and hotels from the order. The mandatory evacuation occurred on Sunday, and the delay exacerbated the difficulty in moving people away from the storm.
- The New Orleans Police Department unit assigned to the rescue effort, despite many years' worth of flood warnings and requests for money, had just three small boats and no food, water or fuel to supply its emergency workers.
- Investigators could find no evidence that food and water supplies were formally ordered for the Convention Center, where more than 10,000 evacuees had assembled, until days after the city had decided to open it as a backup emergency shelter. FEMA had planned to have 360,000 ready-to-eat meals delivered to the city and 15 trucks of water in advance of the storm. But only 40,000 meals and five trucks of water had arrived.
Representative Thomas M. Davis III, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the special House committee investigating the hurricane response, said the only government agency that performed well was the National Weather Service, which correctly predicted the force of the storm. But no one heeded the message, he said.
"The president is still at his ranch, the vice president is still fly-fishing in Wyoming, the president's chief of staff is in Maine," Mr. Davis said. "In retrospect, don't you think it would have been better to pull together? They should have had better leadership. It is disengagement."
One of the greatest mysteries for both the House and Senate committees has been why it took so long, even after Mr. Bahamonde filed his urgent report on the Monday the storm hit, for federal officials to appreciate that the levee had broken and that New Orleans was flooding.
Eyewitness to Devastation
As his helicopter approached the site, Mr. Bahamonde testified in October, there was no mistaking what had happened: large sections of the levee had fallen over, leaving the section of the city on the collapsed side entirely submerged, but the neighborhood on the other side relatively dry. He snapped a picture of the scene with a small camera.
"The situation is only going to get worse," he said he warned Mr. Brown, then the FEMA director, whom he called about 8 p.m. Monday Eastern time to report on his helicopter tour.
"Thank you," he said Mr. Brown replied. "I am now going to call the White House."
Citing restrictions placed on him by his lawyers, Mr. Brown declined to tell House investigators during testimony if he had actually made that call. White House aides have urged administration officials not to discuss any conversations with the president or his top advisors and declined to release e-mail messages sent among Mr. Bush's senior advisors.
But investigators have found the e-mail message referring to Mr. Bahamonde's helicopter survey that was sent to John F. Wood, chief of staff to Secretary Chertoff at 9:27 p.m. They have also found a summary of Mr. Bahamonde's observations that was issued at 10:30 p.m. and an 11:05 p.m. e-mail message to Michael Jackson, the deputy secretary of homeland security. Each message describes in detail the extensive flooding that was taking place in New Orleans after the levee collapse.
Given this chain of events, investigators have repeatedly questioned why Mr. Bush and Mr. Chertoff stated in the days after the storm that the levee break did not happen until Tuesday, as they made an effort to explain why they initially thought the storm had passed without the catastrophe that some had feared.
"The hurricane started to depart the area on Monday, and then Tuesday morning the levee broke and the water started to flood into New Orleans," Mr. Chertoff said on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Sept. 4, the weekend after the hurricane hit.
Mr. Chertoff and White House officials have said that they were referring to official confirmation that the levee had broken, which they say they received Tuesday morning from the Army Corps of Engineers. They also say there were conflicting reports all day Monday about whether a breach had occurred and noted that they were not alone in failing to recognize the growing catastrophe.
Mr. Duffy, the White House spokesman, said it would not have made much difference even if the White House had realized the significance of the midnight report. "Like it or not, you cannot fix a levee overnight, or in an hour, or even six hours," he said.
But Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said it was obvious to her in retrospect that Mr. Chertoff, perhaps in deference to Mr. Brown's authority, was not paying close enough attention to the events in New Orleans and that the federal response to the disaster may have been slowed as a result.
"Secretary Chertoff was too disengaged from the process," Ms. Collins said in an interview.
Compounding the problem, once Mr. Chertoff learned of the levee break on Tuesday, he could not reach Mr. Brown, his top emergency response official, for an entire day because Mr. Brown was on helicopter tours of the damage.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the homeland security committee, said the government confusion reminded him of the period surrounding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Information was in different places, in that case prior to the attack," Mr. Lieberman said, "and it wasn't reaching the key decision makers in a coordinated way for them to take action."
Russ Knocke, a homeland security spokesman, said that although Mr. Chertoff had been "intensely involved in monitoring the storm" he had not actually been told about the report of the levee breach until Tuesday, after he arrived in Atlanta.
"No one is satisfied with the response in the early days," Mr. Knocke said.
But he rejected criticism by Senator Collins and others that Mr. Chertoff was disengaged.
"He was not informed of it," Mr. Knocke said. "It is certainly a breakdown. And through an after-action process, that is something we will address."
The day before the hurricane made landfall, the Homeland Security Department issued a report predicting that it could lead to a levee breach that could submerge New Orleans for months and leave 100,000 people stranded. Yet despite these warnings, state, federal and local officials acknowledged to investigators that there was no coordinated effort before the storm arrived to evacuate nursing homes and hospitals or others in the urban population without cars.
Focus on Highway Plan
Mr. Bradberry, the state transportation secretary, told an investigator that he had focused on improving the highway evacuation plan for the general public with cars and had not attended to his responsibility to remove people from hospitals and nursing homes. The state even turned down an offer for patient evacuation assistance from the federal government.
In fact, the city was desperately in need of help. And this failure would have deadly consequences. Only 21 of the 60 or so nursing homes were cleared of residents before the storm struck. Dozens of lives were lost in hospitals and nursing homes.
One reason the city was unable to help itself, investigators said, is that it never bought the basic equipment needed to respond to the long-predicted catastrophe. The Fire Department had asked for inflatable boats and generators, as well as an emergency food supply, but none were provided, a department official told investigators.
Timothy P. Bayard, a police narcotics commander assigned to lead a water rescue effort, said that with just three boats, not counting the two it commandeered and almost no working radios, his small team spent much of its time initially just trying to rescue detectives who themselves were trapped by rising water.
The investigators also determined that the federal Department of Transportation was not asked until Wednesday to provide buses to evacuate the Superdome and the convention center, meaning that evacuees sat there for perhaps two more days longer than necessary.
Mr. Brown acknowledged to investigators that he wished, in retrospect, that he had moved much earlier to turn over major aspects of the response effort to the Department of Defense. It was not until the middle of the week, he said, that he asked the military to take over the delivery and distribution of water, food and ice.
"In hindsight I should have done it right then," Mr. Brown told the House, referring to the Sunday before the storm hit.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company