11/23/2010 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fact-Checking the Bush Memoir: New Orleans

My friend David Corn has done yeoman work in fact-checking Decision Points regarding the issues surrounding the Iraq War and the outing of Valerie Plame (available at A Twitter buddy sent me the chapter concerning Hurricane Katrina, expecting that I'd have some factual light to shed on it. And, yes, I do.

Me? In case you're late to the party, I made a documentary film about the twin forensic engineering investigations of the flooding of New Orleans, and about a whistleblower inside the Corps of Engineers. Those two investigations, completed and on the public record since 2006 (well inside the second Bush term), are the closest this country has to a scientifically accurate explanation of what happened on Aug. 29, 2005.

Bush starts out with some scene-setting, involving Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin. He reiterates the oft-stated premise that local and state officials had primary response duty during the catastrophe, citing the 1988 Stafford Act. But... he conveniently ignores the National Response Plan which he himself signed in December 2004, which provides that, in case of an "event of national significance," the Federal government is to assume that state and local resources are overwhelmed, and to perform proactively.

He then repeats another familiar meme:

The low-lying city
is shaped like a crescent bowl.

Well, except for a certain jar, I don't know what kind of crockery was in the Bush family home, but I've never seen a crescent bowl. And, according to Dr. Richard Campanella of Tulane, who's done the most recent work on this subject, even now, fully half of populated New Orleans is at or above sea level.

Next, President Bush says this:

Over time, the levees were strengthened, especially after
Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965. They held through seven hurricanes over the next forty years.

He's referring, post-Betsy, to the Hurricane Protection System mandated by Congress following that storm. The system, engineered and built by the US Army Corps of Engineers (or, more properly, built by its private contractors), was not even completed more than four decades after its start, and was found, by the two investigations, to have been riddled with startling design and construction mistakes and misjudgements.

The President's timeline continues:

At 6:10 a.m. Central Time on Monday, August 29, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana.

He neglects to mention that, some forty minutes before, according to the evidence uncovered by the investigators who wrote the ILIT and Team Lousiana reports, levees and floodwalls had already begun to fail on the eastern side of New Orleans and in St. Bernard Parish. People were already facing two- and three-story walls of water coming at their houses before landfall. As the timeline of the event, originally published in the Times-Picayune and refined for my film, makes clear, all the levee breaches throughout the city occurred within the next four hours, more than fifty in all. And there's evidence uncovered by Dr. Ivor van Heerden (formerly of LSU) that the Corps of Engineers informed President Bush of this situation no later than Monday night. Yet...

Governor Blanco confirmed that while some water had spilled over the tops of the levees, they had detected no breaches. My staff and I went to bed thinking the levees had held.

Now the chronology gets downright strange. Although the city continues to take in floodwater on Tuesday (until the water level equalized with the level of Lake Ponchartrain), the President's account differs sharply with that of the two investigations:

Early Tuesday morning, Day Two of Katrina, I learned that the first reports were wrong. The levees in New Orleans had been breached. Water from Lake Pontchartrain began to pour into the city, filling the bowl.

Yet, a FEMA official in the city on Monday, Day One, testified under oath that his agency's HQ knew the extent of the flooding by 11 pm Monday evening. Marty Bahamonde sent his first email, detailing the breach in the 17th St. Canal, at 11 a.m. Monday morning. Bush's report, far from dispelling (as he seems to want to do) the then-current image of his distance from the disaster, only enhances it.

Then there's this:

A horrific scene was developing at the Superdome, where tens of thousands of people had gathered to take shelter. After three days, the roof was leaking, the air-conditioning
had stopped working, and sanitation facilities had broken down. The media issued
reports of sadistic behavior, including rape and murder. Between the chaos and the poor communications, the government never knew for sure what was happening. It took us several days to learn that thousands of other people had gathered with no food or water at the New Orleans Convention Center.

Of course, the Convention Center scenes were all over television news. No explanation of why that information didn't penetrate the White House bubble. Bush also repeats the stories of criminal behavior:

On top of the hurricane and flood, we were now facing the third disaster: chaos and violence in New Orleans. Looters smashed windows to steal guns, clothing, and jewelry.
Helicopters couldn't land because of gunfire. Downtown buildings were aflame.
The police force was powerless to restore order.

--without acknowledging that most of these reports were later found to have been erroneous (here and here).

It's almost as if President Bush's account of this event was sealed in amber in early September 2005, and he's done no reading, or fact-checking, about it in preparation for his encounter with History. But that couldn't be true, could it?

UPDATE: WEDNESDAY, 11:30 a.m. (CT): My friend Mark Schleifstein at the Times-Picayune sends along these links. The first is an archive of the stories the TP ran on Monday, Aug 29, giving anyone a real-time view of what was known, and knowable, on that day:
The second is a video briefing of President Bush by then-National Hurricane Center chief Max Mayfield, making clear the danger of flooding: