“All indications point to this being a historic hurricane,” President Obama said in remarks about Hurricane Irene on Friday morning from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation.
He emphasized that coordination with local agencies has already begun. “Although we can’t predict with perfect certainty the impact of Irene over the next few days, the federal government has spent the better part of last week working closely with communities that could be affected by this storm to see to it that we are prepared.”
That’s what President Obama said publicly, and for a window into what the private briefings might look today and tomorrow, it’s worth looking back at video of President George W. Bush’s briefing with FEMA and National Hurricane Center officials less than a day before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. The Associated Press obtained video of that briefing six months after Katrina.
It was a Sunday morning, and President Bush tapped in via video conference from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Then-FEMA Director Michael Brown was there, as was National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield.
"My gut was this was a bad one and a big one," Brown told the assembled group. "This is, to put it mildly, the big one I think."
Brown went on to express concerns about worst-case scenario plans to shelter residents at the SuperDome, questioning the soundness of its roof and noted the public health challenges of assembling so many people there.
National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield did his best to emphasize the massive scale of the potential devastation.
“I don’t think anyone can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that is obviously a very, very grave concern," Mayfield warned the group, the latest in a string of warnings he issued as Katrina neared the coast. The night before this briefing with the president, Mayfield had called the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans to emphasize his serious concerns. "I just wanted to be able to go to sleep that night knowing that I did all I could do," Mayfield later told the St. Petersburg Times.
The differences between Katrina and Irene are notable, of course. Katrina was a massive Category 5 hurricane, while Irene is currently a Category 2 and the National Hurricane Center does not expect it to grow in strength before it reaches the North Carolina coast Friday night. At this point, however, the hurricane’s pathway is predicted to follow along the entire northern east coast, with warnings stretching up the mid-Atlantic to New York City and Boston.
President Bush did not ask any questions during this Katrina briefing, but he told the group the federal government was "fully prepared."
"I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, but we will move in whatever resources assets we have at our disposal after the storm to help you deal with the loss of property, and we pray, for no loss of life of course.
What President Bush knew about Katrina’s potential impact, and when he knew it, later became a major political problem for President Bush.
“There is frustration,” President Bush told ABC News days later, when the full impact of Katrina’s devastation was becoming clear. “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
The AP later reported that it wasn’t until the day that Katrina was hitting that then-FEMA director Brown said that Bush had asked about reports of breaches, but Bush did not participate in that briefing.