New Orleans - New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said on Wednesday that he was shocked by video showing US President George Bush being told the day before Hurricane Katrina hit that the city's protective levees could fail.
The tape contradicts the president's statement four days after the hurricane struck: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."
"It surprises me that if there was that kind of awareness, why was the response so slow?" said Nagin, whose city was devastated when the storm struck on August 29 and sparked massive flooding.
"I have kind of a sinking feeling right now in my gut. I mean, I was listening to what people were saying and I was believing them that they didn't know. So therefore it was an issue of a learning curve.
"From this tape it looks like everybody was fully aware."
Nagin listened with headphones and watched an excerpt from the video for the first time as reporters, who had just heard from city officials how successful the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras was, stood around him.
The tape shows Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff being told on August 28 that the hurricane could trigger breaches of levees that protect the city as well as threaten the Superdome, which became a last-ditch shelter for storm victims. The tapes were obtained by the Associated Press, which played Nagin the excerpt.
"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 and assets we have at our disposal after the storm to help you deal with the loss of property," Bush says in one part of the video. "We pray there's no loss of life, of course."
White House spokesperson Trent Duffy said the tape was misleading.
"It seems to me to suggest that the president not fully engaged in the response to Hurricane Katrina. The president was fully engaged and involved in meetings on the response," he said.
Duffy said Bush's involvement included making disaster declarations, and pushing publicly for evacuations and also urging state officials to get people to move to safer ground.
The Bush administration has been heavily criticized for its plodding initial response to Katrina, which killed about 1 300 people along the Gulf Coast and sparked crime-plagued anarchy in New Orleans.
In the historic city, the storm surge triggered breaches in some levees and deluged entire neighborhoods, some of which remain in a state of ruin six months on.
After watching the tape, Nagin said it looked as if top officials, including then-Federal Emergency Management Agency boss Michael Brown, knew the storm could be devastating, that the Superdome roof was "a question mark" and the military would likely have to be brought in to help.
"I'm just shocked," he said.
Last month, a congressional report written by Republicans said federal agencies were unprepared for the Katrina catastrophe and quicker involvement by Bush might have improved their response.
At the time, Chertoff acknowledged that his department was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm but said it was wrong to suggest he and Bush were unresponsive.