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March 2, 2006
Katrina Tape Half-Story

Most news agencies have reported on the AP's tape of a meeting involving President Bush, Michael Brown, and a number of other FEMA officials and local and state politicians during Hurricane Katrina. In the tape, most of the reports claim, Bush specifically heard warnings about levees being breached. However, that's not what the tape shows, at least the portion aired by the AP and NBC on their broadcast last night (available at MS-NBC at the above link). What is does show is an expert saying to the group, "At this point, we don't know whether the levees will be overtopped or not."

As Dafydd ab Hugh at Big Lizards points out, breaching and overtopping are two very different events. Neither are particularly desirable, of course, but overtopping would result in the release of excess water from Lake Pontchatrain, while the breaches released an exponentially larger volume, resulting in far more devastation. No one in this clip mentions the word "breach" at all, and the breathless reporting at the AP winds up being highly misleading. It's used to indict the president, who later said that no one imagined that the levees would be breached -- and if this clip is as good as the media has, then apparently the president is right.

Here's what the AP reported:

Bush declared four days after the storm, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees” that gushed deadly floodwaters into New Orleans. But the transcripts and video show there was plenty of talk about that possibility — and Bush was worried too.

In fact, however, Bush only started asking about breaches after the media reports of them starting airing, as Brown noted, and what the AP does not say is what he got for a response. For that part of the story, one has to turn to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which tells its readers the rest of the story:

Transcripts of calls from the days before the storm and the days afterward have surfaced as part of House and Senate investigations into the slow government response to Katrina. But the transcript for the Aug. 29 conference call, initiated about six hours after the storm hit, had been missing. An official with the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that the call had been recorded by one of the participants and only recently came to light.

During the call, which began at noon, then-FEMA Director Michael Brown says that he had already spoken to President Bush twice that day.

"He remains very, very interested in this situation," Brown said. "He's obviously watching the television a lot, and he had some questions about the Dome, he's asking questions about reports of breaches. He's asking about hospitals. He's very engaged, and he's asking a lot of really good questions I would expect him to ask."

Later in the call, White House aide Joe Hagin asks specifically about the condition of the levees. Gov. Kathleen Blanco tells him that no failures were confirmed -- yet.

"We keep getting reports in some places that maybe water is coming over the levees," Blanco said. "I think we have not breached the levee. We have not breached the levee at this point in time. That could change, but in some places we have floodwaters coming in New Orleans East and the line at St. Bernard Parish 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."

In fact, the record shows that the White House had been fully engaged in the disaster and had repeatedly asked for updates. Brown himself notes (and NBC did report this) that Bush had personally called him twice that day, and it was still only noon. The White House also followed the media reports closely, demanding to know whether the reported breaches had actually occurred. (The fact that the media could not be trusted to get the story straight was later proven when the hysterical reporting about cannibalism, murders, and toxic flood waters all turned out to be false.) What answer did the White House get? The local and state authorities told them that nothing had happened, and that the flooding so far had come from the storm itself and not the lake.

As usual, the news media misreports the Katrina information to sensationalize it, and the skewed story is the one that makes the morning paper. File this one in the same drawer as the mass murders at the Superdome and the Cannibals of St. Bernard Parish, and marvel at the fact that even six months later, the media doesn't take the time to get its fact straight about Katrina.

UPDATE: Power Line has more deconstruction of the AP report, including factual errors on when the National Guard arrived and more.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 2, 2006 5:55 AM

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