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When the Spin Levee Breaks

The Media Research Center wants you to believe that levee topping and levee breaches are separate, unrelated events. The MRC is wrong.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 3/10/2006

The writers at the Media Research Center are being dishonest when they claim, in an attempt to provide cover for the Bush administration, that an overtopped levee is a separate and unrelated event from a levee breach.

Why? Because much of the time, they are related events -- an overtopped levee tends to be a precursor to a breached levee. As the Army Corps of Engineers states, "when a levee is overtopped, it may breach."

Additionally, the House Select Committee on Katrina reported that, according to preliminary information from the National Science Foundation, Louisiana State University and the American Society of Civil Engineers, "most of the levees and floodwall breaches on the east side of New Orleans were caused by overtopping, as the storm surge rose over the tops of the levees and/or their floodwalls and produced erosion that subsequently led to breaches."

Yet, despite this undeniable link, MRC writers have insisted that overtopping and breaching are not the same thing, for the sole reason of protecting President Bush against an allegation raised by the Associated Press that, despite Bush's claim that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," a video of a pre-Katrina meeting showed that National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield warned that "whether the levees will be topped" was "obviously a very, very grave concern":

  • "[NBC's] Lisa Myers, however, recognized the meaning of words and how water flowing over a levee, topping it, is not the same thing as a breaching, the collapse of a levee, which is what occurred." -- Brent Baker, NewsBusters, March 3, repeated in an MRC CyberAlert the same day
  • "[Fox News anchor Brit] Hume set up the discussion by referring to the difference between “breaching,” when a levee fails and what Bush said in an interview was not anticipated, and 'topping,' when some water goes over a levee which remains intact, of which the National Hurricane Center's Max Mayfield had raised as a possibility." -- Brent Baker, NewsBusters, March 2, repeated in a March 3 CyberAlert
  • "On the Thursday March 2 Countdown show, [Keith] Olbermann ran a story by NBC's Lisa Myers, which had already run earlier on the NBC Nightly News, in which Myers played a clip of meteorologist Maxfield warning administration officials that flood waters from Katrina posed a risk of the levees being 'topped,' which Myers accurately distinguished from a 'breach' through further discussion with Mayfield." Brad Wilmouth, NewsBusters, March 2, repeated in a March 3 CyberAlert
  • "There’s no getting around it. Chris Matthews hears what he wants to hear even when the facts are right in front of him. After showing the video of President Bush being briefed by Max Mayfield saying: "I don’t think anybody can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that’s obviously a very, very grave concern," Matthews took that as evidence that Bush lied when he said no one anticipated the breach of the levees." Geoffrey Dickens, NewsBusters, March 2, repeated in March 3 CyberAlert
  • "Critics of the Bush administration have promoted video of an Aug. 28, 2005, teleconference between emergency management officials and the president as proof that the White House was warned that levees around New Orleans would likely fail against Hurricane Katrina. But a closer examination of the recording and transcript shows no mention that the Crescent City's levees would be breached. ... Further comparison of the video to the transcript by Cybercast News Service indicates that Mayfield's quote, which was not transcribed accurately, came from a discussion of the possibility that water from Katrina's storm surge might flow over the tops of the levees, not that the levees might fail." -- Jeff Johnson,, March 3

A March 6 post by Sheppard, though, contradicts the entire MRC spin machine by quoting a Popular Mechanics article dedicated to "debunking Katrina myths," which stated: "Most of the New Orleans floodwall failures occurred when water up to 25 ft. high overtopped the barriers, washing out their foundations."

When the AP issued a clarification stating that it "should have made clear that Bush was warned about floodwaters overrunning the levees, rather than the levees breaking," the MRC folks were ready to claim vindication:

  • "Isn’t that wonderful? For the past three days, the press have been in full dudgeon concerning this issue, and Democratic leaders have asked for an independent investigation. Now, late Friday evening, the AP does an Emily Litella telling Americans, “Never mind.” Meanwhile, as it’s now the weekend, most of the citizenry will likely not hear about this mistake, and, instead will retain an opinion on this matter without all the facts. One can only hope that the AP is going to do a full investigation into this matter, and fire those that are responsible for this pathetic error." Noel Sheppard, NewsBusters, March 4
  • "In other words, the main thrust of the AP story – that Bush had been warned about levee breaches but had done nothing – was false." -- Clay Waters, NewsBusters, March 5
  • "Democrats have used an erroneous Associated Press report (on what President Bush was told before Hurricane Katrina struck land) to raise money for Democrat coffers. ... On March 1, the Associated Press reported that 'federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his homeland security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees.' But as the A.P. "clarified" two days later, President Bush was not warned that the levees could be 'breached' (ruptured) -- he was warned that the levees could be 'topped' (overflow)." -- Susan Jones,, March 6, in an article headlined "Erroneous AP Story Used in Democrat Propaganda"

David Thibault, editor in chief chimed with a March 6 column complaining that Democrats "can't even tell the difference between the words 'topped' and 'breached.' " And how is that different from people like Thibault and his fellow MRC writers, who want you to think that the two have nothing at all to do with each other?

Thibault also whined that the AP merely "clarified" its original article --" Not a retraction, which was demanded, and not a correction -- just a lousy clarification. That's like saying, 'You better put some ice on that lip," following a sexual assault.' " Or, perhaps, Thibault is confusing this with his own refusal to admit error despite CNS' obviously false misquoting of Paul Begala, claiming that he said that Republicans were out to kill him and his family.

While the MRC was the main promoter of this trope, it wasn't the only one. NewsMax contributed as well, repeating a Washington Times editorial claiming that "[t]he truth, instead, is that no adviser warned the president of the possibility that the levees could fail." And NewsMax columnist Phil Brennan penned a March 8 column -- which, ironically, accuses the media of running a "big-lie operation" against Bush -- insisted that there is "a very big difference" between breached and topped levees.

Aside from the inextricable link between topped and breached levees -- and the resultant fact the even if Bush was warned only about topping, he should have known that breaches were likely to follow -- there's something else the MRC and NewsMax won't tell you: There's plenty of other evidence that Bush knew that the levees could be breached. As Media Matters reported, just before Katrina hit land, the Department of Homeland Security warned the White House that, based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's July 2004 "Hurricane Pam" planning exercise, Katrina could cause levees breaching as well as overtopping. Additionally, former FEMA head Michael D. Brown said in an briefing the day the hurricane was pounding the Gulf Coast that Bush asked whether the levees had been breached.

If there was a metaphorical levee against the MRC's ocean of spin, it was overtopped and breached with this episode. And such faulty, polluted spin tends to stagnate like Lake Ponchartrain water in the Ninth Ward.

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