Nice try, fellas!

No, no one “anticipated” a levee breach, if “anticipated” means “thought it was more likely than not.” But a competent chief executive, having been told that the levees might be topped, would have asked what the risk was that they would fail entirely. And an honest human being wouldn’t have pretended, afterwards, that the failure to plan for the worst wasn’t ultimately his fault.

Mickey Kaus, following Patterico’s lead, had me going for a while with this one:

A good deal of the gleeful Froomkinian outrage in the press and Democratic party over that pre-Katrina video seems to be based on what is at best is a semantic misunderstanding. After Katrina, Bush said “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” In the video, Patterico points out, Bush is warned by hurricane expert Max Mayfield that there’s a chance the “levees will be topped.”

Topping is different than breaching, no? When a levee’s “topped,” or “overtopped,” some water sloshes over it and into the city. Then the storm passes and that’s it. When a levee’s “breached,” there’s a hole in the levee and Lake Pontchartrain pours in the gap and keeps pouring in until the city is completely flooded.

What Bush said after the storm seems quite consistent with what Mayfield told him before the storm &#8212 i.e., he thought the levees might be topped by the storm surge but not that they’d be breached, with the catastrophe that resulted.

At first blush, a fair point. Bush was warned that the levees might be topped, not that they might be breached, so he wasn’t wrong to say later that no one anticipated that they’d be breached. Is it plausible that the press, in search of a good story or a “gotcha,” would elide the difference? Sure.

Naturally, Tom Maguire and Glenn Reynolds, always (like Kaus) eager to criticize the performance of the media as long as the error tilts left rather than right, piled on.

All this is fair enough (if we omit the fact that &#8212 as Maguire notes &#8212 Brown had previously warned Bush about the risk of levee breaching, and the further fact that several official reports about the risk to New Orleans from a big storm specifically considered levee-breaching as a danger). Maguire even has a reasonable basis for his claim that Bush’s comment was “spot on,” as long as “anticipate” means “expect,” and “expect” means “consider more likely than not.”

But there’s just one thing. Bush’s job title isn’t “Chief Weather Forecaster.” He’s supposed to be the Chief Executive. His job wasn’t to guess what might happen, but to make sure that the country was ready to deal with whatever did happen. The fact, if it is a fact, that no one assigned a levee breach a probability of over 50% doesn’t in any way absolve Bush and the people working for him from the responsibility for not having plans in place to deal with it if it came to pass.

The President failed miserably, and his “I don’t think anyone anticipated” line was a miserable and dishonest cop-out.

Imagine just as an exercise that we’d had an actual CEO running the country instead of an overgrown frat boy. He’s at a briefing, with Michael Brown present, at which Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Center says that it’s likely that the levees in New Orleans will be “topped” by Katrina. Here’s a part of the dialogue that might follow:

The President: “Topped”? What’s that?

Mayfield: Water comes over the top of the levees.

The President: Does that mean that the whole city floods?

Mayfield: Not necessarily, sir. Not unless the levees are actually breached. The worst case is that the levees are so weakened by the water washing over them that they give way completely.

The President: How likely is that?

Mayfield: We’re not sure. Maybe the Corps of Engineers has some estimates, but we haven’t seen them.

The President: Of course you aren’t sure. But give me a range. Is it less than 5%? Would you give me 20-to-1 against it?

Mayfield: No, sir.

The President: Right. Then we’d better be ready for it if it happens. (Turns to Brown.) Are we? How much of the city would be underwater if that happened? How many people would we have to evacuate? Do we have enough capacity to handle an evacuation that size? How fast can we acquire that capacity? Where do they stay while they’re waiting to be evacuated? Is there enough food and water in place? Where do we put the evacuees once we get them out? Who has the contingency plan, and who has the authority to order it into operation? How much warning would we have? What sort of monitoring is in place?

Brown: (Mumbles incoherently as the President piles on the questions.)

The President: Oh, for Chrissakes! You mean we’re don’t even have a plan for the worst case? You’re just sitting there and hoping it doesn’t happen? You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie! Now you’ve got six hours to get me answers to those questions, or I’m sending you back to measuring horse-cocks or whatever the hell it was you used to do. Capisce?

At that point, of course, our hypothetical President gets and stays on top of the situation until he’s sure that there’s either a plan in place or someone in charge with the authority to improvise one. And he keeps asking people, as the storm news comes in, whether the levees are holding.

The actual President, of course, stayed on vacation and accepted vague assurances that everything was being handled properly until he saw otherwise on television. And then he tried to alibi by saying that no one “anticipated” a levee breach. And now his spear-carriers are quibbling about the difference between Bush’s having been warned about levee- breaching during the meeting in the video or before the meeting in the video. Feh.

Update Josh Marshall has some wise thoughts on Michael Brown’s role in the disaster: just because he was scapegoated then and is doing some limited modified truth-telling now doesn’t change the fact that he was grossly out of his depth as FEMA Director.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: