New Orleans: The No-Fault Disaster? Naaah.

“What did the president know and when did he know it?”

It’s time to dust off the question that gained prominence in the Watergate investigation and point some fingers.

I first learned of the levee break watching the West Coast feed of CNN’s Paula Zahn NOW (no transcript available). On the West Coast, they incorporate breaking news segments with pre-recorded material, and one of the anchors (identified by others as Rick Sanchez) was interviewing a VP at Tulane University Hospital in the Central Business District who reported that police officials had informed her earlier in the day that there was a breach in the 17th Street levee. The water at the hospital — about 3 miles from where the breach occurred — was rising at a rate of about one inch every five minutes. That was at about 2am New Orleans time. A long report on the Times-Picayune Breaking News blog was posted at about that time, saying ” A large section of the vital 17th Street Canal levee, where it connects to the brand new ‘hurricane proof’ Old Hammond Highway bridge, gave way late Monday morning in Bucktown after Katrina’s fiercest winds were well north.” A report from Monday at 2:30pm said “Times-Picayune photographer Ted Jackson waded into the Lower 9th Ward Monday afternoon and reported a scene of utter destruction. The wind still howled, floodwaters covered vehicles in the street and people were clinging to porches and waiting in attics for rescuers who had yet to arrive.” Even right-wing idealogues on the Free Republic site knew something was up, if they tore themselves away from FOX News and flipped to CNN for a little bit.

The Times-Picayune had reported “6 to 8 feet of water” forcing people into their attics in the Lower 9th Ward as early as 9am. In fact, they reported flooding had been confirmed by Maj. Gen. Bennet C. Landreneau of the Louisiana National Guard, although at the time — an hour after the height of the storm — it wasn’t yet known whether the levees had been breached or overtopped. FEMA director Michael Brown may have missed that info — he didn’t get to Baton Rouge for a couple more hours. The first Times-Picayune report of a levee breach is at 2pm Monday.

In other words, there were already reports of severe flooding within an hour of the time the hurricane hit New Orleans. State officials were aware of it and had even briefed the press on the matter by 9am. The cause of the flooding (or at least one cause) was known by the early afternoon.

And here’s the kicker. Mayor Ray Nagin had told a radio station that water was coming over a levee into the 9th Ward in significant amounts in what the report describes as “an early morning interview.” That was early Monday morning.