- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 5. Chertoff pointed fingers: "New Orleans officials
and the state officials ... called for the Superdome to be the refuge of
- 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 t
- 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
- 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
- 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 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
- Jeremy Schulman and Raphael Schweber-Koren are members
of the research department at Media Matters for America.