March 1, 2006

N.Orleans mayor “shocked” by pre-Katrina Bush tape

By Jeffrey Jones

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said on
Wednesday he was shocked by video showing U.S. President George
W. Bush being told the day before Hurricane Katrina hit that
the city's protective levees could fail.

The tape contradicts the president's statement four days
after the hurricane struck: "I don't think anyone anticipated
the breach of the levees."

"It surprises me that if there was that kind of awareness,
why was the response so slow?" said Nagin, whose city was
devastated when the storm struck on August 29 and sparked
massive flooding.

"I have kind of a sinking feeling right now in my gut. I
mean, I was listening to what people were saying and I was
believing them that they didn't know. So therefore it was an
issue of a learning curve.

"From this tape it looks like everybody was fully aware."

Nagin listened with headphones and watched an excerpt from
the video for the first time as reporters, who had just heard
from city officials how successful the first post-Katrina Mardi
Gras was, stood around him.

The tape shows Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael
Chertoff being told on August 28 that the hurricane could
trigger breaches of levees that protect the city as well as
threaten the Superdome, which became a last-ditch shelter for
storm victims. The tapes were obtained by the Associated Press,
which played Nagin the excerpt.

"I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are
fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, 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," Bush says in one part of the video. "We pray there's
no loss of life, of course."

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the tape was

"It seems to me to suggest that the president not fully
engaged in the response to Hurricane Katrina. The president was
fully engaged and involved in meetings on the response," he

Duffy said Bush's involvement included making disaster
declarations, and pushing publicly for evacuations and also
urging state officials to get people to move to safer ground.

The Bush administration has been heavily criticized for its
plodding initial response to Katrina, which killed about 1,300
people along the Gulf Coast and sparked crime-plagued anarchy
in New Orleans.

In the historic city, the storm surge triggered breaches in
some levees and deluged entire neighborhoods, some of which
remain in a state of ruin six months on.

After watching the tape, Nagin said it looked as if top
officials, including then-Federal Emergency Management Agency
boss Michael Brown, knew the storm could be devastating, that
the Superdome roof was "a question mark" and the military would
likely have to be brought in to help.

"I'm just shocked," he said.

Last month, a congressional report written by Republicans
said federal agencies were unprepared for the Katrina
catastrophe and quicker involvement by Bush might have improved
their response.

At the time, Chertoff acknowledged that his department was
overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm but said it was wrong
to suggest he and Bush were unresponsive.