White House Received Dire Warnings Pre-Katrina

Newly released documents show the White House and other officials received more dire warnings than previously thought about Hurricane Katrina's potential impact. One Homeland Security report predicted hours before the storm hit that New Orleans would likely be submerged by flooding for weeks, and even months.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Newly released documents show that the White House received more dire warnings than previously thought about the impact of Hurricane Katrina. One internal Homeland Security report written shortly before the storm hit predicted that New Orleans would likely be submerged by flooding for weeks, and even months.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

The warnings were prepared by an office within the Department of Homeland Security and forwarded to the White House situation room in the early hours of August 29th, the day the hurricane hit. The analysis said that a storm rated category four or higher, the size predicted for Katrina, would likely lead to severe flooding and levy breeches in New Orleans.

The analysis said this would cause billions of dollars in damage and disruptions for millions of people. And the report's author said these projections were conservative. The documents were released as part of a senate investigation into the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina, and at a hearing today Joseph Lieberman, ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said he was amazed that so little was done in response.

Mr. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Homeland Security Committee): We have already learned enough to be not just disappointed, but truly infuriated by the poor performance of all levels of government.

FESSLER: He said the Homeland Security report, and numerous other warnings, should have been a wakeup call. He questioned how President Bush could be so uninformed to when the storm hit.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: That he said three days later, I quote, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breech of the levies."

FESSLER: White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied that the White House was unaware of the seriousness of the hurricane. He said that's why the president repeatedly urged residents to evacuate.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (Spokesman, White House): What he was referring to was that there was a sense by many, once the hurricane hit and had passed, that the worse case scenario did not happen. There were numerous media reports saying that New Orleans had dodged the bullet.

FESSLER: But it was at least a day before top officials realized that was wrong. McClellan added that the president has already acknowledged failures at all levels of government. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins said today that one failure was a lack of follow up to a 2004 government exercise in Louisiana involving a make-believe storm called Hurricane Pam. That exercise exposed many of the problems that eventually occurred during Hurricane Katrina. But Collins noted that the drill was repeatedly delayed.

Ms. SUSAN COLLINS (Chairperson, Senate Homeland Security Committee): I can't help but think that if Pam had been funded back in the late 90s or early in 2000, when it was first discussed, that the response to Katrina would have been better.

FESSLER: The committee-released notes of a 2005 briefing involving hurricane Pam participants, who noted that evacuation planning was still incomplete. According to the notes, Jessie Saint Amont (ph), Director of the Plackman's Homeland Security Office of Homeland Emergency Preparedness, said many residents did not have their own transportation and that there could be mass causalities. He told lawmakers today that he warned others at the July meeting that the city of New Orleans couldn't evacuate these people without federal help, but there was little follow up.

Mr. JESSIE SAINT AMONT (Director, Plackman's Homeland Security Office of Homeland Emergency Preparedness): We were under the impression that's exactly why we were there to try to bring out these points of the mass infrastructure lack of capability and the necessary logistics support that would be necessary to move that many people outside of the risk area.

FESSLER: Still other witnesses said the Hurricane Pam exercise, which projected more than 60,000 deaths from the storm, added to the urgency with which officials responded to Katrina, encouraging far more people to evacuate than had been predicted. The committee hopes to finish its investigation in March.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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