Jan. 24, 2006 — -- Documents released today by Congress show that two days before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the White House received detailed damage forecasts from Homeland Security officials predicting that the city's levees might be overtopped or breached.
Yet in the days after the storm struck on Aug. 29, federal officials, including President Bush, said the levee breaches could not have been foreseen.
Embattled former FEMA Director Michael Brown said, "I think we were all taken aback by the fact that the levees did break in so many places and caused such widespread devastation."
Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff said, "I will tell you that really that perfect storm of combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners and maybe anybody's foresight."
And on Sept. 1, Bush told "Good Morning America": ''I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees" that flooded New Orleans.
The documents provided today by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, however, showed that the federal agencies overseen by Brown and Chertoff had compiled damage forecasts for the White House at least 48 hours before the storm's landfall that predicted levee overtopping and breaches.
From an engineering standpoint, experts contacted today by ABC News don't believe anything could have been done to shore up the levees even with the advance warning because of existing design flaws in the levee system.
"The die was cast," said Dr. Ray Seed at the University of California at Berkeley, who is part of a review team funded by the National Science Foundation that's investigating the levee breaches. "Nothing could have been done."
Emergency preparedness experts have said in the past that additional advance warning could also have been used by federal officials to press local officials to evacuate those New Orleans residents without easy access to transportation. It's been estimated that about 100,000 New Orleans residents were left behind when Katrina struck.
Seed agreed, saying the advance warning "could have been used by the federal government to stage additional resources in the city and massively improved the FEMA response."
Furthermore, he said the ongoing Science Foundation study has found that the school buses frequently seen in their flooded parking spaces could have been used to evacuate stranded residents. After the storm struck, their gas tanks were found to be full and they were used in evacuations.
On Aug. 27, two days before the storm made landfall, FEMA had prepared a slide presentation for White House officials. The FEMA slides said a Category 4 storm surge "could greatly overtop levees and protective systems." It's unclear who at the White House received this briefing or how its contents were distributed afterward.
Hours before the storm made landfall, the White House Situation Room received a report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in which experts predicted flooding "could leave the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months." The report also said that hurricane damage could cost $10 billion to $14 billion.
At a hearing today, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said the White House has maintained a "refusal to answer" stance regarding questions and document requests by congressional investigators looking at the federal government's response to Katrina.
"Almost every question our staff has asked federal agency witnesses regarding conversations with or involvement of the White House has been met with a response that they could not answer on direction of the White House," Lieberman said.
Brown has said that he notified the White House of his concerns about the storm on the weekend before it struck. Lieberman said that in a meeting with congressional investigators yesterday, Brown was advised by agency lawyers not to answer specific questions about whether he'd spoken to Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the days leading up to the storm.
Congressional investigators aren't the only ones facing difficulties in receiving information from the federal government. The National Science Foundation study researchers have encountered delays in receiving documents from the Army Corps of Engineers relevant to their review of the levee breaches.