Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FEMA AND THE LEVEES....Today's Wall Street Journal features an article about the levee breaches in New Orleans that asks, essentially, What did they know and when did they know it?

"They" is the news media, some of whom got the story right and some of whom got it wrong. But "they" is also FEMA, and they got it disastrously wrong too: "It was on Tuesday that the levee may have been overnight Monday to Tuesday that the levee started to break," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Tim Russert, but that wasn't true. The first levee breach happened on Monday morning:

The New Orleans office of the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning at 8:14 a.m. Monday, saying "a levee breach occurred along the industrial canal at Tennessee Street. 3 to 8 feet of water is expected due to the breach."

What is FEMA's explanation for this? It's one thing that some media outlets didn't notice this warning, but FEMA? Shouldn't they have been practically bonded at the hip with the weather service? How could they possibly not have known immediately about the levee breach?

UPDATE: Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid emails to say that, in fact, there was very little confusion about the Industrial Canal breach. Everyone up and down the line knew about it almost immediately. However:

What caused the real confusion occurred in another part of town, where drainage canal floodwalls (the now-infamous 17th Street canal, and the London Avenue canal) also breached. These breaches flooded most of the central part of the city (the bowl) and made Katrina into a world-class catastrophe.

The 17th Street breach was visually confirmed early Monday, August 29, reported in The Times-Picayune that afternoon, and re-confirmed by a FEMA employee later in the day. But somehow this crucial information did not make it up the chain of command, so nobody in Washington knew what was going on. Thus Michael Chertoff was unaware of any of it until sometime Tuesday, and even then kept talking about a second flood that he thought had started Tuesday.

So it's still true that the levee breaches were initially reported early Monday and FEMA didn't know about it until much later. But it was the 17th Street breach that was the problem, not the Industrial Canal breach.

Kevin Drum 9:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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