Important Katrina Distinction: ‘Topped’ vs. ‘Breached’ (and more)

The media (conservative and liberal) have worked themselves into a furor over recently released tapes of a Hurricane Katrina videoconference involving President Bush. In the conference, held shortly before Katrina hit, Bush was warned that the levees might be ‘topped’ by the hurricane, and the president went on to assure state and local officials that the federal government was ready to deal with the impending natural disaster.

So how is this tape reported in most outlets? Along the lines of: “Bush was warned about levees; lied to state/local officials.” But the media—even right-leaning outlets—are missing an important point. Bush was warned that the levees might be ‘topped,’ not ‘breached.’ It’s right there in the tape, and it’s a very important difference.

Everybody expected a Category 3 and higher hurricane to ‘top’ (cause water to flow over the top of) the levees. That’s how the levees were built, and we were mostly prepared for it. There would have been some flooding and damage, but it would have been manageable. Nobody expected the storm to ‘breach’ (break) the levees, which is what actually happened and is much, much worse.

Why did they breach? Well, the Army Corps. of Engineers built the New Orleans levee system in the early 1900s, and recent investigations have concluded that they were not always built to the standards we thought they were. Some of them were much weaker than believed, and that is the biggest reason that the devastation of New Orleans ended up being as bad as it was. If we’re going to place blame, a fair amount belongs to the original levee builders at the Corps. of Engineers.

That’s not to say that there’s no more blame to go around. There’s plenty. Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco waited too long to call for an evacuation, did not assist enough in getting people evacuated, and allowed the situation after the storm to degrade into anarchy. State and local governments are the power centers for local affairs under our system of government. State and local governments had most of the responsibility, and thus are responsible for most of the failures.

But I’m not letting the federal government off so easily either. I recognize (as most apparently don’t) that the federal disaster response system is designed to augment a preexisting and functioning state/local response system. It is not designed to operate as a system unto itself. But, that said, when it became clear that Nagin and Blanco were incompetent, somebody at the federal level should have stepped in. It wasn’t an ideal situation either way, but the power vacuum and anarchy went on too long.

When New Orleans degraded into chaos—roaming gangs, widespread looting, etc.—and Nagin and Blanco refused to perform their duties, it was time for President Bush to act immediately and decisively. Using his powers under the Insurrection Act, he should have federalized the Louisiana National Guard and seized control of the entire disaster response from the incapable state and local governments. This would have been political suicide for the President (and the Republican Party), but restoring order and saving hundreds of lives should have been an important enough goal to commit political suicide over it.

So there were failures all around; how about we focus on the real ones instead of fabricating new ones out of thin air?

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.