Thursday, March 02, 2006

EVEN IF A TAPE TURNED UP demonstrating that Pres. Bush was warned before Katrina made landfall that the storm might cause New Orleans' levees to breach, Bush supporters would still say it showed no such thing.

Oh wait, that tape did turn up.

Right-wing bloggers have seized on Max Mayfield's use of the word "topped" rather than "breached" on the AP video.

The AP says the transcripts show that Bush was "worried" about the levees failing. But the quote they cite is after Katrina hit, and after levee failures had been reported. This obviously has nothing to do with what was anticipated before the fact. What, then, is the AP's basis for saying that "federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his homeland security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees..."? Here is the only support for that claim in the article:

The National Hurricane Center's Mayfield told the final briefing before Katrina struck that storm models predicted minimal flooding inside New Orleans during the hurricane but he expressed concerns that counterclockwise winds and storm surges afterward could cause the levees at Lake Pontchartrain to be overrun.

"I don't think any model can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not but that is obviously a very, very grave concern," Mayfield told the briefing.

But this has nothing to do with the levees breaching; it has to do with them being overtopped--a much less dangerous threat. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there has been endless discussion about the difference between breaching and overtopping. If these AP reporters, Margaret Ebrahim and John Solomon, really don't know the difference, they have no business reporting on Katrina.

It's true that on the AP video, Max Mayfield (the National Hurricane Center's director) uses the word "topped," not "breached." And in the narrowest, most literal sense, the two words have different meanings. What the bloggers linked above ignore, however, is the fact that overtopping and breaching are connected events; that overtopping can lead to breaching if the overtopping is serious enough -- and that, indeed, is what appears to have happened in New Orleans:

The storm surges produced by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, breached the levees protecting New Orleans in numerous places, flooding approximately 75 percent of the metropolitan area. Most of the levee failures were caused by overtopping, as the storm surge rose over the top of a levee and scoured out the base of the landward embankment or floodwall. Three major and costly breaches appear to have been caused by failure of the soils underlying the levees or failure of the earthen levee embankments themselves; in several places, levee foundations failed when water levels were below the tops of the levees. Transitions between levees of differing heights or materials proved to be weak points in the flood-protection system; a significant number of levee washouts occurred, for example, where the weaker of two adjacent materials was at a lower elevation.

An October 9, 2004, article on New Orleans' website reported:

President Bush and officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even some in the Corps have suggested a breach of New Orleans' levees was unforeseen. But experts inside and outside New Orleans have said for years that a powerful hurricane could send water surging over the city's flood walls and earthen berms, and that could cause a breach.

Even the official White House website noted the close and often causal relationship between overtopping and breaching:

Overtopping is a term used to describe the situation where the water level rises above the height of the levee or floodwall and consequently overtops, or flows over the structure. A breach is a break in the levee or floodwall. A prolonged overtopping can actually cause a levee or floodwall breach. In general, a breach can lead to more significant flooding than an overtopping since breaches take time to repair and until repaired continue to allow water to flow until the water level has receded below the height of the breach. Overtopping, on the other hand, will stop as soon as the water level recedes below the top of the levee or floodwall. Although the consequences are significantly different, from outward appearances, it is often difficult to differentiate a breach from an overtopping.

So when Pres. Bush, listening in on the FEMA video conference, heard Max Mayfield say, "I don't think any model can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not but that is obviously a very, very grave concern," that should have set off alarm bells in Bush's head about the strong possibility that the levees could breach, as well as overtop. And that strong possibility should have led Bush to ask questions. But he did not -- which is another fact right-wing bloggers have conveniently failed to mention in their claims that the AP article was "dishonest."

Bush didn't ask a single question during the final briefing before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, but he assured soon-to-be-battered state officials: "We are fully prepared."

It's the Bush-worshipping part of the blogosphere that's being dishonest; not the media reporting on the tape.

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