What the White House really knew about Katrina

A congressional investigation reveals that the White House knew about the levee breach even as the president campaigned for the war in California.

Published February 10, 2006 2:46PM (EST)

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown is scheduled to testify today before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. It's not likely to be a happy event for the White House.

As the New York Times is reporting, congressional investigators have learned that an eyewitness report on the flooding in New Orleans reached the White House on the night the storm struck, sharply undercutting Bush administration claims that it was unaware of the severity of the crisis as the president continued his vacation and made a campaign-style trip to California.

As the Times reports, a FEMA official named Marty Bahamonde first learned of a major levee breach on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29. He flew over the area of the breach in a helicopter, then phoned in a report to FEMA headquarters in Washington. FEMA officials forwarded the message to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff: "FYI from FEMA," it said: The situation in New Orleans is "far more serious than media reports are currently reflecting. Finding extensive flooding and more stranded people than they had thought -- also a number of fires."

The White House now acknowledges that it received such a message around midnight on Aug. 29. The next morning, George W. Bush flew to San Diego, where he used a backdrop of naval ships to sell the war in Iraq by likening it to World War II and himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Bush would say later that he had been lulled into a false sense of relief by initial media reports on Katrina. "I myself thought we had dodged a bullet," the president said on Sept. 12. "You know why? Because I was listening to people probably over the airwaves say, 'The bullet has been dodged.'"

Brown will testify today that the president should have known better. As he said in an interview with the Times, "There is no question in my mind that at the highest levels of the White House they understood how grave the situation was."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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