Tape proves that Bush was warned of Katrina threat

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The Independent US

President Bush's slumping fortunes have taken another blow after the leak of a video in which he insists everything is under control ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Katrina - even as he was being warned by officials in the starkest terms of the devastating potential of the storm.

The video, along with transcripts of other meetings of federal and state officials just before and after the hurricane struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast last August, has emerged almost exactly six months after the storm. It threatens to upstage the current high-profile Presidential visit to India, which the White House has seen as a precious opportunity to escape its domestic tribulations.

In a sense, the tapes add little to what was previously known. Mr Bush has admitted mistakes in handling the disaster, and the White House has issued a 200-page report, containing 127 recommendations for improving disaster readiness.

But, once again, the tapes raise the question of just how much the White House knew before the hurricane struck - and bolster the image of a President asleep at the wheel. Their very disclosure, moreover, is a sign of the weakening grip of an administration that has always prided itself on running the tightest of tight ships from which nothing leaks.

"I want to assure folks at state level that we are fully prepared," Mr Bush is shown saying at a videoconference, sitting in a windowless conference room at his Texas ranch on the afternoon of Sunday 28 August, as Katrina was taking final aim.

But an official from the National Hurricane Centre warns President Busg that the levees protecting New Orleans were at serious risk, giving the lie - and not for the first time - to Mr Bush's previous assertion that "no-one could have predicted the levees would fail." Michael Brown, the much-mocked former boss of the federal disaster agency FEMA, is seen calling the storm "the big one." He raises concerns about the roof of the Superdome, the shelter of last resort for city dwellers, and wonders whether there are enough medical and mortuary facilities to cope with a possible "catastrophe within a catastrophe".

This is the latest in a series of domestic mishaps for the administration, from the disclosure of warrant-less domestic wiretapping by the National Security Agency, to the current row over the planned takeover of operations at six major US ports by an Arab-owned company.

These have been accompanied by a series of foreign policy set backs - the election victory of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Iran's intransigence over its nuclear programme and, above all, the bloody sectarian mayhem in Iraq.

Barring an unlikely stabilisation of the situation in Iraq, the Pentagon will probably have to put on hold its plans for a big reduction this year in the US force in Iraq that could halve the present strength of 140,000 by the end of 2006. That, in turn, would further damage the standing of Mr Bush and his Republican party ahead of November's mid-term elections, where Democrats are bidding to recapture at least one, and perhaps both, chambers of Congress.

One poll this week, by the Zogby organisation, suggested that 72 per cent of troops in Iraq think the US should get out of the country within the next 12 months, while another, carried out by CBS, puts domestic approval of Mr Bush's handling of Iraq at just 30 per cent.

According to the same CBS survey, the President's overall approval rating has hit its lowest level since he took office five years ago - even though that figure of 34 per cent is still above the 26 per cent registered by Jimmy Carter in 1979, a year before his defeat by Ronald Reagan, and the nadir of 24 per cent touched by Richard Nixon in July 1974 at the climax of the Watergate scandal.

Against all visible evidence, Mr Bush continues to maintain that the US is succeeding in its Iraq mission. But Republicans on Capitol Hill, concerned to distance themselves from an unpopular President as they fight to hang on to their seats, are increasingly disbelieving.

What he was told

Excerpts from video conference between George Bush and Fema on 28 August 2005

"No one can tell you exactly where that landfall is going to be. But this hurricane is so large that no matter where it hits, it's going to have an impact over a very, very large area." (Max Mayfield, of the National Hurrican Centre)

"I don't think any model can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that's a very grave concern." (MM)

"I mean, the storm-force winds are going to be there, you know, later this afternoon and this evening. So, you know, people are already running out of time. And, quite frankly, for the folks in Louisiana, if you can't get people out, you know, if you're ever going to, you know, talk about vertical refuge, this is the time to do it." (MM)

"The big question is going to be: will that top some of the levees? And the track and the forecast we have now suggests there will be minimal flooding in the city of New Orleans itself, but we've always said the storm surge model is only accurate within about 20 per cent. If that track were to deviate just a little bit to the west, it makes all the difference the world [sic]. I expect there will be levees over top even out here in the western portions where the airport is." (MM)

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