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Democrats: Katrina e-mails show levee breaches reported early

Analysis comes as ex-FEMA chief prepares to testify

From Mike Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau


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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
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Emergency Incidents
Disasters (General)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Democrats investigating FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina say they have documented nearly 30 instances in which federal and local government officials gave early reports on Aug. 29 that levees had broken and that New Orleans was flooding, including one report at 8:30 a.m. the day of the storm.

That information is likely to raise fresh questions about why President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were evidently unaware of the flooding until the day after the storm.

"The first communication came at 8:30 a.m. (Monday). So, it is inexplicable to me how those responsible for the federal response could have woken up Tuesday morning unaware of this obviously catastrophic situation," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, said.

The Democrats released the analysis and a new batch of FEMA e-mails Thursday in advance of a Senate hearing Friday featuring former FEMA Director Mike Brown. Brown resigned after coming under relentless criticism about FEMA's response to Katrina.

According to the records compiled by the Senate investigators, New Orleans Homeland Security Director Col. Terry Ebbert said in an 8:30 a.m. conference calls that the levees had broken.

"We're faced with major flooding both in the east, East New Orleans, and then out on the lakefront," Ebbert is reported to have said. FEMA and National Weather Service personnel participated in the call, the analysis says.

At 9:36 a.m., a FEMA employee stationed at the National Hurricane Center e-mailed FEMA official Michael Lowder that a report had been received that a levee in Arabi, next to the Industrial Canal, had failed.

And at 10 a.m., a DHS official e-mailed DHS headquarters in Washington: "It is getting bad. Major flooding in some parts of the city. People are calling in for rescue saying they are trapped in attics, etc. That means water is 10 feet high there already."

A White House Homeland Security Council report at 11:13 a.m. takes note of the dire reports. It reads in part: "Flooding is significant throughout the region and a levee in New Orleans has reportedly been breached sending 6-8 feet of water throughout the 9th Ward area of the city."

But, Democratic staffers said, the record shows that despite the numerous reports, senior administration officials had poor awareness of the situation, even days after the storm passed.

They point to a statement by Bush at a news conference in Mississippi on Sept. 2, the Friday after the storm. "The levees broke on Tuesday in New Orleans," Bush said.

They also point to a statement by Chertoff that Sunday on NBCs "Meet the Press":

"It was on Tuesday that the levee -- may have been overnight Monday to Tuesday -- that the levee started to break. And it was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the gap and that essentially the lake was going to start to drain into the city. I think that second catastrophe really caught everybody by surprise," he said.

DHS: 'We've talked about' these flaws

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman said the e-mails released by the Democrats "actually reinforce everything that we've been saying all along, and that is that there was an extraordinary lack of situational awareness on the day of landfall and after landfall that was very frustrating and handicapped officials."

On Tuesday, the day after the storm, "it took the entire day to be able to contact Michael Brown," DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said. "It took the duration of the day and ultimately at the end of the day when they did speak, the direction was very clear from Mr. Chertoff that he (Brown) no longer needed to be up in helicopters; he needed to be on the ground managing the storm."

But the e-mails -- hewn from 300,000 documents provided to the committee -- do not depict enormous efforts made in the early days of the storm to separate accurate reports from inaccurate ones, he said.

"You've got to realize that (Chertoff) was intensely involved... deconflicting a lot of misinformation," Knocke said. "He was not made aware that the levees were breached until Tuesday morning. The fact that that information did not get to him until Tuesday morning is a flaw, and it's one we've talked about."

Knocke said FEMA is taking steps to address the problem, including creating emergency reconnaissance teams skilled at providing factual reports about disaster scenes.

"They're going to have real-time connectivity back to headquarters with a video feed, so we're not going to run into a situation where we have a lack of visibility again," Knocke said.

"The fact is people can extract e-mails and extract memos and take them out of context and apply them to the use that they think is going to be in their self-interest, but that doesn't lend itself to any constructive lessons learned."

Information not totally new

The Democrat-compiled report contains some never-before-released e-mails, but it is not the first time Congress has heard that FEMA officials had received reports of flooding soon after Katrina's landfall.

Marty Bahamonde, the only FEMA official in New Orleans during the storm, has testified before Congress that he made repeated telephone calls and sent several e-mails to FEMA superiors about the worsening situation.

Bahamonde says he reported the canal breach at about 11 a.m. Monday.

"As I passed on minute-by-minute information, I was always under the assumption that it would then be passed on to Undersecretary Brown and others. I do not know if this ever happened," he testified.

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