Eight Big Lies About Katrina
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Editor, The Konformist
Eight Big Lies About Katrina
By Jeremy Schulman and Raphael Schweber-Koren, Media Matters for
Posted on September 9, 2005
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.