In a September 2 article headlined “Government Saw Flood Risk but Not Levee Failure,” The New York Times printed without challenge President Bush's false claim, originally made on ABC's Good Morning America, that “I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees” surrounding New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, dozens of news organizations had reported on the possibility of a breach well in advance of the hurricane, and even the Times' lead editorial in the same day's newspaper flatly stated that "[d]isaster planners were well aware that New Orleans could be flooded by the combined effects of a hurricane and broken levees."
From the September 2 Times report:
The response will be dissected for years. But on Thursday, disaster experts and frustrated officials said a crucial shortcoming may have been the failure to predict that the levees keeping Lake Pontchartrain out of the city would be breached, not just overflow.
In an interview Thursday on “Good Morning America,” President Bush said, “I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” He added, “Now we're having to deal with it, and will.”
Though the Times kept it a secret from its readers, Bush simply wasn't telling the truth. Many people “anticipated the breach of the levees,” as Media Matters for America has detailed. A September 2 Washington Post editorial similarly noted:
It is simply not true, as Mr. Bush said yesterday, that nobody “anticipated the breach of the levees.” In fact, experts inside and outside of government have issued repeated warnings for years about the city's unique topography and vulnerability, and those warnings were loudly and prominently echoed by the media both nationally and in Louisiana.
Not only is it not true, as Bush claimed, that nobody “anticipated the breach of the levees,” it seems that nearly everybody anticipated the breach. The problem wasn't lack of anticipation, it was lack of preparation.
A June 8, 2004, New Orleans Times-Picayune article noted: “For the first time in 37 years, federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area's east bank hurricane levees.” The article quoted the manager of the Army Corps of Engineers' Lake Pontchartrain levee project saying that “people should know that this is a work in progress, and there's more important work yet to do before there is a complete system in place.” A Corps senior project manager added, “When levees are below grade, as ours are in many spots right now, they're more vulnerable to waves pouring over them and degrading them.” And Jefferson Parish emergency management chief Walter Maestri told the paper: “It appears that the money [for hurricane-protection efforts] has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. ... Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”
Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten noted on September 2:
Three years ago, New Orleans' leading local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, National Public Radio's signature nightly news program, “All Things Considered,” and the New York Times each methodically and compellingly reported that the very existence of south Louisiana's leading city was at risk and hundreds of thousands of lives imperiled by exactly the sequence of events that occurred this week. All three news organizations also made clear that the danger was growing because of a series of public policy decisions and failure to allocate government funds to alleviate the danger.
Since 2002, when all these reports ran, the Times-Picayune has published no fewer than nine stories reporting that the combination of tax cuts, the war in Iraq and the demands of homeland security had led President Bush's administration to repeatedly reject urgent requests from the Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana's congressional delegation that it allocate the money to save New Orleans.
Former Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) told the Associated Press that it was well-known that the levees could not withstand a major hurricane: “Those levees are OK under normal times but once every hundred years, that's not enough. ... We've all said for years that a category 4 or 5 hurricane hit just right on New Orleans, there was nothing there sufficient to prevent New Orleans from being 20 feet under water.”
And Mike Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi who headed the Army Corps of Engineers in the Bush administration until losing his job after criticizing the White House budget office, told the AP: “I'm not saying it wouldn't still be flooded, but I do feel that if it had been totally funded, there would be less flooding than you have.”
On September 1, the Chicago Tribune reported details of some of those budget shortfalls:
For instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested $27 million for this fiscal year to pay for hurricane-protection projects around Lake Pontchartrain. The Bush administration countered with $3.9 million, and Congress eventually provided $5.7 million, according to figures provided by the office of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
Because of the shortfalls, which were caused in part by the rising costs of the war in Iraq, the corps delayed seven contracts that included enlarging the levees, according to corps documents.
A quick search of the Nexis news database reveals no shortage of news reports about possible levee breaches that could occur in the event of a major hurricane. Here's a small sampling:
- ABC's Nightline, 9/15/04: “If it sounds overly dramatic, it is not. This city is surrounded by water on three sides. Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi below. A major hurricane hitting right here would breach the levees. Water would cascade in, submerging the city. And because of the levees, it would have no way of escaping.”
- Associated Press, 5/16/04: “Officials have warned that if a major hurricane hits New Orleans, thousands of people could be killed and the city could be flooded for weeks as flood waters breach the levees ringing the city, which has the topography of a saucer that dips several feet below sea level in many places.”
- The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 9/19/03: "... the Hurricane Center has developed an 'extremely detailed' map of New Orleans because the city, which sits about 6-feet below sea level and is surrounded by levees, is a 'worst-case scenario' for a major storm to hit. Knowing how far and how fast the water in the inlets will rise, evacuations and cleanups can be better planned, [LSU Hurricane Center director Ivor] van Heerden said. In the case of south Louisiana, a breach of the levees would trap the flood water on the wrong side of the bank once the bayous and rivers receded, van Heerden said."
- Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/6/02: “New Orleans, with more than 460,000 residents, lies entirely below sea level and depends on a system of levees to hold back the Gulf of Mexico. Some researchers say a Category 3 hurricane could breach the levees and kill thousands of people.”
At least two other news organizations pointed out the contradiction between Bush's words and reality:
- Cox News Service, 9/1/05: “On ABC-TV Thursday, President Bush acknowledged the 'frustration' of New Orleans residents, but said, ” I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.' In fact, such a failure has been forecast for years."
- San Francisco Chronicle, 9/2/05: "'I fully understand people wanting things to have happened yesterday. I mean, I understand the anxiety of people on the ground. I can -- I just can't imagine what it's like to be waving a sign saying “come and get me now,'' ' Bush said. 'But I want people to know there's a lot of help coming. ... I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,' he said. That point was fiercely contradicted on blogs and talk radio Thursday.”
When Bush claims nobody “anticipated the breach of the levees,” he isn't telling the truth; he's trying to avoid responsibility for underfunding Army Corps of Engineers' hurricane-protection projects. And the New York Times is helping Bush avoid responsibility by repeating his false comments without contradiction. Indeed, the false claim that nobody anticipated a levee beach occurs throughout the Times article (headlined “Government Saw Flood Risk but Not Levee Failure” ), with nary a hint that it isn't true.
And yet, if Times readers turned to the editorial page of the same September 2 paper that contains that article, they would see a lead editorial that declared: “Disaster planners were well aware that New Orleans could be flooded by the combined effects of a hurricane and broken levees, yet somehow the government was unable to immediately rise to the occasion.”
Times readers with long memories might also remember an August 11, 2002, Times article in which Times reporter Adam Cohen warned:
New Orleans ... may be America's most architecturally distinctive and culturally rich city. But it is also a disaster waiting to happen. New Orleans is the only major American city below sea level, and it is wedged between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. If a bad hurricane hit, experts say, the city could fill up like a cereal bowl, killing tens of thousands and laying waste to the city's architectural heritage. If the Big One hit, New Orleans could disappear.
There is considerable agreement about what the Big One would look like. A Category 4 or 5 hurricane would move up from the Gulf to Lake Pontchartrain, forcing lake water over levees and into the city. If the New Orleans “bowl” filled, the Red Cross says, there could be 100,000 deaths. An additional 400,000 could be stranded on roofs, surrounded by a witches' brew of contaminated water. Property loss estimates run as high as $150 billion, though much of the imperiled architecture -- like the St. Louis Cathedral -- is priceless.
So far, Washington has done little, and New Orleans's response has been less than satisfying. The city is focused on evacuating its 500,000 residents. But the roads leading out would flood quickly, stranding those who lingered. Then there is the thorny issue of the 100,000 residents without cars. “When I do presentations,” said Terry Tullier, head of the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness, “I start by saying that 'when the Big One comes, many of you will die -- let's get that out of the way.' ”
Mr. Tullier has seen computer models of Canal Street under 20 feet of water and heard that the floodwaters could stay for weeks, that the National Guard might bring in thousands of body bags -- and that New Orleans might never recover. “In this business, we bring no good news,” he said. “It's full of worst-case scenarios.”
It's clear that there has long been wide recognition that a large hurricane could cause exactly the kind of devastation currently being seen in New Orleans, and that the levee system would not be sufficient to stop it. The Army Corps of Engineers knew it; the Times-Picayune knew it; countless news stories over the years have dealt with the possibility; Congress knew it; the former Republican congressman who lost his job as head of the Corps of Engineers for complaining about budget cuts knew it -- and The New York Times knew it.