In the past week, Bush administration officials and conservative commentators have repeatedly used the national media to spread misinformation about the federal government’s widely criticized response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
1. Bush: “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees”
On the Sept. 1 broadcast of ABC’s Good Morning America, President Bush told host Diane Sawyer, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees” that protected New Orleans from flooding. As Media Matters for America has noted, Sawyer did not challenge Bush’s claim, despite numerous, repeated warnings by government officials, experts and the media that a major hurricane could cause levee breaches resulting in catastrophic flooding. A September 2 New York Times front-page article repeated Bush’s false claim without challenge — even though a Times editorial the same day declared, “Disaster planners were well aware that New Orleans could be flooded by the combined effects of a hurricane and broken levees.”
A Sept. 5 CNN.com article reported that Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff falsely told reporters that “planners” did not predict a breach of the levees that would flood the city. As CNN.com reported, Chertoff said, “That ‘perfect storm’ of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight.” But unlike the Times, CNN.com noted that “officials have warned for years that a Category 4 [hurricane] could cause the levees to fail.” The CNN.com article added that in an August 31 interview on CNN’s Larry King Live, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael Brown said, “That Category 4 hurricane caused the same kind of damage that we anticipated. So we planned for it two years ago. Last year, we exercised it. And unfortunately this year, we’re implementing it.” But in the same Larry King Live interview, Brown responded to complaints that rescue efforts were not moving quickly enough by insisting, “And I must say this storm is much, much bigger than anyone expected.”
Additionally, as journalist Joshua Micah Marshall noted on Talking Points Memo, National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield “talked about the force of Katrina during a video conference call to President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas” on August 28 [St. Petersburg Times, 8/30/05]. The Washington Post quoted Mayfield on September 6: “They knew that this one was different. … I don’t think Mike Brown or anyone else in FEMA could have any reason to have any problem with our calls. … They were told … We said the levees could be topped.”
2. Chertoff strained credulity in defense of Bush, claimed levee breaks and massive flooding came as a surprise — more than 12 hours after local media reported them
On Sept. 4, Chertoff appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and attempted to explain Bush’s discredited claim that “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” After host Tim Russert asked Chertoff how the president could “be so wrong, be so misinformed,” Chertoff suggested that Bush had been referring to newspaper reports the morning after the storm that New Orleans had “dodged a bullet” because the eye of the storm had passed to the east of the city. But more than 12 hours before the appearance of those headlines in print, a post on the weblog of the New Orleans Times-Picayune — dated August 29, 2 p.m. CT — reported, “City Hall confirmed a breach of the levee along the 17th Street Canal at Bellaire Drive, allowing water to spill into Lakeview.” This initial report on the Times-Picayune weblog was followed throughout the afternoon and evening of August 29 by reports of other levee breaks and massive flooding.
While Chertoff said he recognized that the city’s levee system failed sometime Monday night or Tuesday morning — in fact, the first breaks occurred earlier, as noted above and as Think Progress noted in its detailed Hurricane Katrina timeline — he insisted that “it was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the gap and that essentially the lake [Pontchartrain] was going to start to drain into the city.” According to Chertoff, this “second catastrophe really caught everybody by surprise” and was a major reason for the delay in the government’s emergency response.
Questioning Chertoff further, Russert pointed out that the Times-Picayune published a five-part series in June 2002, in which it warned that if a large hurricane hit New Orleans, the city’s levees would likely be topped or broken — resulting in catastrophic flooding and thousands of deaths. Russert added that “last summer FEMA, who reports to you, and the LSU Hurricane Center, and local and state officials did a simulated Hurricane Pam in which the levees broke. … Thousands drowned.”
Chertoff then clarified, “What I said was not that we didn’t anticipate that there’s a possibility the levees will break. What I said was, in this storm, what happened is, the storm passed and passed without the levees breaking on Monday. Tuesday morning, I opened newspapers and saw headlines that said ‘New Orleans Dodged the Bullet,’ which surprised people. What surprised them was that the levee broke overnight and the next day and, in fact, collapsed. That was a surprise.”
Even accepting as true Chertoff’s incredible suggestion that he — the secretary of Homeland Security — and the president of the United States relied on the print media for their information on the situation in New Orleans, as Think Progress points out, had administration officials “bothered to read the full text of the three articles they found with favorable headlines, they would have realized that federal government help was needed immediately.” Moreover, while Chertoff did not indicate which headlines he was referring to, many newspapers — in addition to the Times-Picayune — did report on broken levees and significant flooding. For example, on August 30, the Los Angeles Times reported that a levee break had occurred by late morning August 29, with water from the break “spill[ing] through the area, flooding the town’s two main shelters and swamping the local National Guard armory, leaving even public safety officials homeless.”
Or Chertoff could have turned on the television. On the August 30 broadcast of NBC’s Today, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams reported at 7:05 a.m. ET, “There has been a huge development overnight … the historic French Quarter, dry last night and it is now filling with water. This is water from nearby Lake Pontchartrain; the levees failed overnight.”
Indeed, Chertoff’s and Bush’s professed ignorance notwithstanding, the federal government was well aware of the continuing threat of the levees breaking. Just hours after the storm passed on Monday, August 29, FEMA director Brown confirmed that the potential for catastrophic flooding remained. In an interview with Brown, NBC Today co-host Matt Lauer noted, “In New Orleans, in particular, they’re worried about the levees giving way or the canals not holding, and they’re worried about toxic runoff.” Brown responded that even though the storm had weakened, there was still a 15- to 20-foot storm surge causing “the water out of Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf and the Mississippi continue to converge upon Louisiana.” Brown added, “So we’re still ready for a major disaster.”
3. Brown: “We’ve provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they’ve gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day”
On the Sept. 2 broadcast of NBC’s Today, FEMA director Brown told host Katie Couric, “We’ve provided food to the people at the [New Orleans’ Morial] Convention Center so that they’ve gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day.” Couric did not challenge this statement.
But on Sept. 1, NBC News photojournalist Tony Zumbado reported on MSNBC Live:
ZUMBADO: I can’t put it into words the amount of destruction that is in this city and how these people are coping. They are just left behind. There is nothing offered to them. No water, no ice, no C-rations, nothing, for the last four days. They were told to go to the convention center. They did, they’ve been behaving. It’s unbelievable how organized they are, how supportive they are of each other. They have not started any melees, any riots. They just want food and support. And what I saw there I’ve never seen in this country. We need to really look at this situation at the convention center. It’s getting very, very crazy in there and very dangerous. Somebody needs to come down with a lot of food and a lot of water.
4. Chertoff: “Apparently, some time on Wednesday, people started to go to the convention center spontaneously”
On the Sept. 1 edition of CNN’s Paula Zahn Now, Brown claimed, “Every person in that convention center, we just learned about that today [Thursday, September 1].” During a September 4 interview with Chertoff on CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, host Blitzer replayed Brown’s comments. In response, Chertoff said:
CHERTOFF: Well, I mean, this is clearly something that was disturbing. It was disturbing to me when I learned about it, which came as a surprise. You know, the very day that this emerged in the press, I was on a video conference with all the officials, including state and local officials. And nobody — none of the state and local officials or anybody else — was talking about a convention center. The original plan, as I understand it, was to have the Superdome be the place of refuge, of last resort. Apparently, some time on Wednesday, people started to go to the convention center spontaneously.
Chertoff’s claim that hurricane survivors sought refuge in the convention center under their own initiative echoed his September 4 Meet the Press interview, in which he suggested, “We became aware of the fact at some point that people began to go to the convention center on their own, spontaneously, in order to shelter there.” Chertoff’s statements were false, but neither Blitzer nor Russert challenged them.
Though scenes of thousands of hurricane victims awaiting water, food, and buses at the convention center were not broadcast on television until Thursday, Sept. 1, Chertoff and Brown would have had access to media reports about the convention center before then. As early as Aug. 29, Times-Picayune staff writer Bruce Nolan wrote an article for the Newhouse News Service in which he reported, “City officials said they might open the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center as a temporary refuge to shelter an estimated 50,000 people made homeless by the storm.” Nolan’s article appeared in the Times-Picayune on August 30.
Beginning Aug. 31, other reports of survivors at the convention center emerged:
Knight Ridder, Aug. 31: “Derwin DeGruy had been kicked out of two hotels, the first on Sunday right before the storm hit, and the second one on Tuesday morning after it hit. He and about 50 other people found makeshift shelter on a ramp leading to the mall and parking garage at the New Orleans Convention Center. They rigged places for people to go to the bathroom, pooled their water for the babies, placed some blankets on the concrete and decided to wait and see what happened.”
Associated Press, August 31: “The 37-year-old banker — who admitted to looting some food from a nearby supermarket — said the hotel guests were told they were being taken to a convention center, but from there, they didn’t know.”
Associated Press, Aug. 31: “After several hours, a small fleet of rented moving trucks showed up to take the people to the downtown convention center so they could be taken out of the city. Police herded people up metal ramps like cattle into the unrefrigerated boxes.”
By Sept. 1, when Brown claimed FEMA first learned about the situation at the convention center, TV networks were broadcasting footage of thousands of survivors waiting for water, food, and evacuation buses. Despite Chertoff’s later insistence that New Orleans residents “spontaneously” converged on the convention center, the September 1 broadcast of ABC’s Nightline included footage of a law enforcement official instructing survivors to go there:
SURVIVOR: Ain’t nobody helping us.
LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIAL: I understand.
SURVIVOR: No, ain’t nobody doing anything for us.
LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIAL: Y’all got to go to the convention center.
5. Chertoff pointed fingers: “New Orleans officials and the state officials … called for the Superdome to be the refuge of last resort”
In his Sept. 4 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Chertoff attempted to place blame for the conditions at the Superdome solely with state and local officials. Chertoff asserted, “My understanding is, and again this is something that’s going to go back — we’re going to go back over after the fact — is the plan that the New Orleans officials and the state officials put together called for the Superdome to be the refuge of last resort.”
But this claim is misleading at best. As The Washington Post reported on September 3, a FEMA official acknowledged participating in meetings in which the plan to use the Superdome as a shelter for thousands of evacuees was discussed:
Brown, the agency’s director, told reporters Saturday in Louisiana that he did not have a sense of what was coming last weekend.
“I was here on Saturday and Sunday, it was my belief, I’m trying to think of a better word than typical — that minimizes, any hurricane is bad — but we had the standard hurricane coming in here, that we could move in immediately on Monday and start doing our kind of response-recovery effort,” he said. “Then the levees broke, and the levees went, you’ve seen it by the television coverage. That hampered our ability, made it even more complex.”
But other officials said they warned well before Monday about what could happen. For years, said another senior FEMA official, he had sat at meetings where plans were discussed to send evacuees to the Superdome. “We used to stare at each other and say, ‘This is the plan? Are you really using the Superdome?’ People used to say, what if there is water around it? They didn’t have an alternative,” he recalled.
Moreover, the plan to use the Superdome as a shelter for evacuees was widely known. The 2002 Times-Picayune series on the potential for a catastrophic hurricane reported that of the estimated 200,000 New Orleans residents who would likely remain in the city, “[s]ome will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter in New Orleans for people too sick or infirm to leave the city.”
6. Chertoff falsely minimized federal government’s role in Katrina response as subordinate to states
The Bush administration has responded to criticism of its role in the Katrina disaster by attempting to deflect blame onto state and local officials in Louisiana [The New York Times, 9/5/05 ]. One way they are doing that is to claim that the federal government’s role in a natural disaster of this magnitude is to provide support to state and local governments and work at their behest. Conservative media figures immediately fell into line, echoing the administration’s claim that the federal government’s role was subordinate (see here and here). In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s December 2004 National Response Plan clearly indicates that in these situations, the federal government will pre-empt state and local efforts and provide immediate assistance to the affected area.
On Sept. 1, two days after the levees were breached, Chertoff, at a press conference announcing the start of “National Preparedness Month 2005,” characterized the federal role in response to Katrina as that of providing support to state and local officials: “The Department of Homeland Security will continue to work with federal, state and local partners to support efforts on the ground in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. We are working tirelessly to make sure that federal resources are being applied where they are needed all across the Gulf” [Federal News Service, 9/1/05]. But on Sept. 2, Chertoff told reporters that the situation had changed and that federal agencies would now take over the primary role: “The fact of the matter is, this set of catastrophes has broken any mold for how you deal with this kind of weather devastation, and so we’re going to break the mold in terms of how we respond. The federal government is not going to play merely its customary role in giving all necessary support to first responders. The federal government is going to step up and take a primary role, working with state and locals to deal with the outcome of this tragedy.” [National Public Radio, 9/3/05]
But Chertoff’s Sept. 1 statement ignored the administration’s own homeland security response plan, which directed the federal government to act on its own authority to quickly provide assistance and conduct emergency operations following a major catastrophe, pre-empting state and local authorities if necessary. According to DHS’ December 2004 National Response Plan (NRP), “catastrophic events,” such as what occurred in New Orleans, call for heightened and “proactive” federal involvement to manage the disaster. The response plan listed “guiding principles” to govern the response to these major events. The “Guiding Principles for Proactive Federal Response” make clear that, in these “catastrophic” cases, the federal government will operate independently to provide assistance, rather than simply supporting or cajoling state authorities:
The primary mission is to save lives; protect critical infrastructure, property, and the environment; contain the event; and preserve national security.
Standard procedures regarding requests for assistance may be expedited or, under extreme circumstances, suspended in the immediate aftermath of an event of catastrophic magnitude.
Identified Federal response resources will deploy and begin necessary operations as required to commence life-safety activities.
Notification and full coordination with States will occur, but the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources. States are urged to notify and coordinate with local governments regarding a proactive Federal response.
State and local governments are encouraged to conduct collaborative planning with the Federal Government as a part of “steady-state” preparedness for catastrophic incidents.”
The NRP also says that, when responding to a catastrophic incident, the federal government should start emergency operations even in the absence of clear assessment of the situation. “A detailed and credible common operating picture may not be achievable for 24 to 48 hours (or longer) after the incident,” the NRP’s “Catastrophic Annex” states. “As a result, response activities must begin without the benefit of a detailed or complete situation and critical needs assessment.”
A Sept. 5 Los Angeles Times article quoted former FEMA chief of staff Jane Bullock saying that “[t]he moment the president declared a federal disaster [on Aug 29], it became a federal responsibility. … The federal government took ownership over the response.” Moreover, DHS’ own website declares that DHS “will assume primary responsibility on March 1st  for ensuring that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation. This will entail providing a coordinated, comprehensive federal response to any large-scale crisis and mounting a swift and effective recovery effort.”
7. Wash. Post, Newsweek, Gingrich falsely claimed that Blanco did not declare a state of emergency
In recent days, two news articles falsely reported that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had failed to declare a state of emergency, which had supposedly hampered the federal response. An article in the Sept. 13 edition of Newsweek claimed that “Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco seemed uncertain and sluggish, hesitant to declare martial law or a state of emergency, which would have opened the door to more Pentagon help.” Likewise, a Sept. 4 Washington Post article incorrectly claimed that “As of Saturday [Sept. 3], Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency,” citing an anonymous senior Bush administration official. (The Washington Post’s article was later corrected, although Newsweek has yet to correct its article.) Fox News political analyst Newt Gingrich repeated the point on the September 5 O’Reilly Factor, saying, “As you [O’Reilly] point out, the governor [Blanco] failed to call the emergency. And initially, it was the governor who had to call an emergency.” In fact, as the Post later noted, Blanco declared a state of emergency (PDF) on August 26.
8. Gingrich falsely claimed that Nagin could “have kept water pumped out” of city had he ensured that pumps worked
On the Sept. 5 O’Reilly Factor, Gingrich also claimed that if New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin had been able to keep the New Orleans pumps working, the flood waters could have been pumped out of the city. “[F]irst of all, the mayor of New Orleans had a real obligation to make sure the four pumps could work. Three of them didn’t. It would have kept water pumped out.” In fact, New Orleans has 22 “notoriously fickle” pumping stations, according to an Aug. 31 New York Times article. The Times also reported that, according to Dr. Shea Penland, a coastal geologist, “When the pumping systems are in good shape, it can rain an inch an hour for about four to six hours and the pumps can keep pace. More than that, the city floods.” The Times also noted that “[e]fforts to add backup power generators to keep [the pumps] all running during blackouts have been delayed by a lack of federal money.”
A June 2002 Times-Picayune article, part of a series exploring the probable consequences of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans, indicated that New Orleans’ pumps would have been overwhelmed by the rapidly rising floodwaters:
Soon waves will start breaking over the levee.
“All of a sudden you’ll start seeing flowing water. It’ll look like a weir, water just pouring over the top,” [Louisiana State University engineer Joseph] Suhayda said. The water will flood the lakefront, filling up low-lying areas first, and continue its march south toward the river. There would be no stopping or slowing it; pumping systems would be overwhelmed and submerged in a matter of hours.
“Another scenario is that some part of the levee would fail,” Suhayda said. “It’s not something that’s expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing. The most continuous barrier is the south levee, along the river. That’s 25 feet high, so you’ll see the water pile up on the river levee.”
Jeremy Schulman and Raphael Schweber-Koren are members of the research department at Media Matters for America. © 2005 Independent Media Institute