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Unaware as Levees Fell, Officials Expressed Relief


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WASHINGTON, March 1 - A newly released transcript of a government videoconference shows that hours after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, federal and state officials did not know that the levees in New Orleans were failing and were cautiously congratulating one another on the government response.

In the videoconference held at noon on Monday, Aug. 29, Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, reported that he had spoken with President Bush twice in the morning and that the president was asking about reports that the levees had been breached.

But asked about the levees by Joe Hagin, the White House deputy chief of staff, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana said, "We have not breached the levee at this point in time." She said "that could change" and noted that the floodwaters in some areas in and around New Orleans were 8 to 10 feet deep. Later that night, FEMA notified the White House that the levees had been breached.

The transcript offers new details but does not significantly alter the picture as it has been put together by investigators as to how officials prepared for the hurricane and responded in the first critical days.


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The transcript also shows that on that day the same federal and state officials who would soon be trading recriminations were broad in praising one another's performance.

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A Louisiana emergency official, Jeff Smith, said, "The coordination and support we are getting from FEMA has been just outstanding." And Mr. Brown told Governor Blanco that "you have a really good team, and they're just doing an excellent job."

While transcripts of other videoconferences before and after the storm hit were provided to Congressional investigators months ago, the Aug. 29 video and transcript could not be found by FEMA officials. Employees at a regional FEMA office in Atlanta found a tape a few days ago, and a transcript was delivered to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, officials said.

The reports late Wednesday by several television networks and The Associated Press, prompted by the release of the Aug. 29 transcript, brought new attention to other transcripts that had previously been provided to Congress.

A videoconference on Sunday, Aug. 28, showed serious concern from Mr. Brown, who bore the initial brunt of public unhappiness with the federal response, and a more confident reaction from Mr. Bush.

"I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm," Mr. Bush said, "but we will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm to help you deal with the loss of property. And we pray for no loss of life, of course."

Having heard a dire briefing about the storm from the National Hurricane Center, Mr. Brown said that it would be a "a bad one and a big one" and that he worried about the government's "ability to respond to a catastrophe within a catastrophe."

Noting that the Superdome was about 12 feet below sea level, Mr. Brown expressed concern about its adequacy as an emergency shelter.


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At one point, on Aug. 28, he urged federal officials to cut through red tape to give timely help. "Go ahead and do it," he said. "I'll figure out some way to justify it. Just let them yell at me."

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Asked about the transcripts, Mr. Brown, who resigned under intense criticism of the hurricane response, said Wednesday in an interview that they vindicated his actions and cast doubt on statements by his former boss, Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary.

The videoconferences show "what I have been trying to say throughout this bashing of Mike Brown," he said. "I was aware of the magnitude of the storm. I was pushing the envelope. I was pushing the bureaucracy, and there is no excuse for Michael Chertoff to claim he didn't know what was going on or that I didn't have a command of what was happening in New Orleans."

Mr. Brown said he had warned for three years that budget cuts and the bureaucracy of the Homeland Security Department were crippling FEMA's ability to respond to such a disaster.

"We were all sitting in the same room facing what I was predicting for three years," he said.

A spokesman for Mr. Chertoff, Russ Knocke, said the department had provided 300,000 pages of documents to Congress and 60 witnesses who testified under oath. "The bottom line," Mr. Knocke said, "is there's nothing new here."

The transcript from Aug. 29 added little to the picture, he said.

Mr. Knocke said Mr. Brown had testified that at times during the disaster, he contacted the White House directly and bypassed Mr. Chertoff, suggesting that the FEMA director had contributed to the "fog of bureaucracy" he is now criticizing.

"We're taking the lessons learned from Katrina and applying them to our preparedness and response planning as we go into the next storm season," Mr. Knocke said.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans watched parts of the videoconferences and said he now had a "realization" that "there was full awareness before the storm, and a promise to do whatever it takes."

"It seems as though they were aware of everything," Mr. Nagin said. "It surprises me that, if there was that kind of awareness, why was the response so slow."


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Democrats on Capitol Hill saw the transcripts as offering a new opportunity to criticize the president's handling of the disaster, and they took it.

"Despite the president's claims, the federal government was clearly not 'fully prepared' for this disaster," Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said in a statement.

The Senate minority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, said, "Never has the need for an independent and thorough investigation into the government failures surrounding Hurricane Katrina been more plainly demonstrated than today."

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