The New York Times reports this morning that after examining documents pertaining to the response by government officials to Hurricane Katrina, that there were “missteps at all levels” and that the Bush Administration knew of the damaged 17th Street levee which eventually put 80% of the city underwater on Monday night instead of Tuesday afternoon.
To briefly address the issue about the levee, it appears that the Times, in their continuing effort to blame the Bush Administration for the disaster, have cherry picked one report out of hundreds that were flooding into FEMA headquarters on Monday evening (the day of the storm) and offered it as “proof” that the Administration failed to act in a timely manner with regards to the levee break:
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.
“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 â€” also a number of fires.”
Mr. Marty Bahamonde, is listed in the FEMA Staff Directory as a “Public Affairs Specialist.” Not to take anything away from Mr. Bahamonde who I’m sure is a dedicated public employee but if the City of New Orleans, the State of Louisiana, and others at FEMA who are more technically competent are telling me one thing and a PR “Specialist” is telling me something else, whose information do you think should be acted upon?
A brief look at the Katrina Timeline I amassed from the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports should make things a little clearer.
Late Monday morning, the National Weather Service announced that the 17th Street Levee “gave way,” flooding about 20% of the city. At this point, the system of massive pumps designed to keep Lake Pontchartrain at bay were working at maximum capacity – and fighting a losing battle. According to this report, by late Monday evening, the water was still rising slowly from the damaged levee.
It was at this point that Mr. Bahamonde took his helicopter survey and reported to DHS headquarters that things “are far more serious than media reports are currently reflecting.”
What were those media reports based on? Why information coming from city officials and state DHS employees of course. And as far as those officials knew, the Army Corps of Engineers was dealing with the problem of the levee:
Officials of the Army Corps of Engineers have contingencies for levee breaches such as the one that happened Monday, but it will take time and effort to get the heavy equipment into place to make the repair. Breach repair is part of the corps’ planning for recovery from catastrophic storms, but nobody Monday was able to say how long it would take to plug the hole, or how much water would get through it before that happened.
In fact, the Engineers hadn’t even started, mostly because the overtopping of the levee was much more extensive than the Corps itself realized. They couldn’t get their equipment to the point of the breach due to flooded roads and the the Corps’ massive cranes placed on boats couldn’t navigate the swollen canal.
On Tuesday morning, the water was still rising, something that mystified officials.
Recall that the Administration was saying on Tuesday morning that they had “dodged a bullet” because the damage from the hurricane would evidently be minimized. Even Mr. Bahamonde’s report didn’t mention that the pump system would be unable to handle the flooding as of Monday night.
What ended up “surprising” the Administration – and every one else – was that by early Tuesday evening, the water pouring in from Lake Pontchtrain overwhelmed the pumps causing them to shut down. This is what caused the massive flooding.
To say that this could have been forseen in the dark, on Monday evening, by a PR “Specialist” is absurd. Again, taking nothing away from Mr. Bahamonde, but if you were Michael Chertoff and received a report that, if acted upon would have meant transferring millions – perhaps tens of millons of dollars of resources, wouldn’t you want that information coming from someone who was in perhaps a little better position to know? Especially when local officials were telling you something totally different.
Let me make it clear that this does not in any way excuse the wildly incompetent response by FEMA to this tragedy. But for the Times to try and shift blame to the White House based on an email that contained a report predicting dire consequences unless something was done when the Administration was getting dozens of other reports telling them differently, only shows an inherent bias on the part of the Times that has become all too commonplace.
If all this sounds familiar, consider the way the Times handled leaks from intelligence analysts about Iraq WMD. They used the same method of cherry picking reports that questioned whether or not WMD was there while ignoring the fact that the National Intelligence Estimate of 2002 clearly said the opposite.
As for the rest of the article, there are no major surprises. The move of FEMA from independent agency to an arm of DHS was cited as a major cause of government paralysis, something I pointed out here months ago. And horse impresario Brown (who testifies before the House DHS Committee today), and the disaster tag team of Blanco-Nagin all come in for their share of blame. But as I said here, the politics of disasters have changed enormously:
When all is said and done. When all the fingers have pointed and tongues wagged. After the dead are buried, the hearings held, the pundits pontificate and bloggers blog, it all boils down to this; a force of nature that no one could stop raised a mighty fist a slammed it down on a city and people that didnâ€™t deserve it. Itâ€™s a tragedy. Itâ€™s an act of God so blame him. â€œDoes anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minues to hours?â€ is a line from Gordon Lightfootâ€™s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. For both believers and non-believers alike, blaming God is not an option.
So in the end, politicians will get their pound of flesh. A fat lot of good it will do for the people of New Orleans or which ever city is next in line to feel the random wrath of Mother Nature.