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Two views of Katrina join for grim picture

'Nova' and 'Frontline' address the scientific and bureaucratic causes of storm's devastation.

November 22, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Ted Koppel, who does his last broadcast as the 25-year host of "Nightline" tonight, makes a cameo appearance in "The Storm," a "Frontline" investigation on PBS that puts the federal government's feet to the fire for failing to better prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina.

It's a scathing look back at what happened on the political front, and PBS has coupled it -- the specials air back to back tonight starting at 8 p.m. -- with "The Storm That Drowned a City," a "Nova" special. Where "The Storm" focuses on the Washington politicos and local military commanders, "The Storm That Drowned a City" essentially tells the same story from the scientific side; taken together, the two hours illustrate the disconnect between all that experts can know and why their expertise gets lost in translation.

It's a battle, it would seem, between imagination and bureaucratic ineptitude. No figure came to stand in for the latter impediment more than former FEMA Director Michael D. Brown. "The Storm" includes that now-famous clip of Koppel's undressing of Brown on "Nightline." "Don't you watch television?" Koppel shot at him in that witheringly unconvinced manner that he specializes in.

It was Day Four of the Katrina aftermath and Brown was on TV, saying the federal government had just learned that victims in New Orleans were languishing at the Superdome and Convention Center without food or water -- a stunning admission given that the suffering was on a 24-hour cable news loop.

On "The Storm," Brown, giving what "Frontline" calls his first full-length TV interview post-hurricane, says he didn't express his feelings about the early local response to Katrina to quell panic and admits that he went on TV three times -- with NBC's Brian Williams, with Koppel, with CNN's Soledad O'Brien, and pleaded the federal government's ignorance about the situation in the city, even though it wasn't true.

"So, how do you misspeak three times?" "Frontline" reporter Martin Smith asks Brown. "I don't understand."

"I understand why people can -- can look at that tape and say, 'Brown's saying he just learned about that? He really must be an idiot.' I simply misspoke. I knew about it 24 hours before and I should have said we learned about it 24 hours ago, Brian."

Though it tilts at missteps made on the ground in New Orleans, "The Storm" is really set in Washington, deconstructing the bureaucracy that left FEMA ineffectual when Katrina hit.

"The Storm" is preceded by "The Storm That Drowned a City," which looks more at the science of why the levees failed and the topography that made New Orleans so vulnerable when a Category 5 storm came ashore. The raw video in both documentaries -- of Louisiana National Guard troops chatting as the storm hits, of the inside of buildings being swallowed up days later by floodwaters -- is vivid and smartly used.

The government's failures are juxtaposed against the forecasts of the hurricane experts who were coming up with worst-case scenarios; a year before Katrina, FEMA, presided over by Brown, conducted an exercise called Hurricane Pam, which pretty much predicted what happened during Katrina, although the "The Storm" notes funding for the project was cut before it was completed.

Pam is studied in "The Storm That Drowned a City"; the "Frontline" piece is a distilling of another perfect storm, this one involving the Reagan and first Bush administrations' use of the FEMA post as a "parking lot for political appointees," followed by 9/11 and the Bush administration decision to fold FEMA into the newly created Office of Homeland Security (OHS).

This in effect created, in the words of former OHS Secretary Tom Ridge, "a holding company ... where you had some mergers and acquisitions." You forgot about Ridge during Katrina; he'd left OHS just before and been replaced by Michael Chertoff. (Chertoff declined to be interviewed.)

At one point in "The Storm," Ridge gets impatient at the second-guessing about what he calls the "interoperable communication dilemma" during Katrina, when first-responder communication in the city went blank when lives could have been spared.

As former loyalists released back into the general population, Ridge, more than Brown, still exudes that Bush administration air of absolute certainty and antagonism toward inquiry.

"The Storm" isn't just a second guess, though, because it couldn't be; we know the government failed its people. And yet "The Storm" is still gripping, an examination of the breakdowns in a system, a different kind of levy that got exposed.

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