Fox touts misleading Red Cross account to blame Blanco

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

Fox News and other conservative media, including nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh and popular weblogs, have loudly and repeatedly touted statements made this week by American Red Cross president and CEO Marsha J. "Marty" Evans that Louisiana state homeland security officials blocked Red Cross efforts to enter New Orleans to deliver food, water, and other critical provisions to victims of Hurricane Katrina because the state officials did not want to provide an incentive for people to stay in the city. But a review of public statements by Red Cross officials -- who originally agreed that requests or directives by state and local officials that Red Cross relief workers stay out of the city were made because the city was not safe -- shows they have subtly shifted their rhetoric regarding who was responsible for barring the Red Cross, whether it was an outright bar or a request, and what the reason was for the authorities' not wanting Red Cross relief workers to go into the city, undermining the Fox News report.

This shift neatly complements Bush administration efforts to re-direct blame for failures in the relief effort on state and local officials, particularly on Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Also notably absent from Fox News' reports was any mention of the fact that both the Red Cross' charter and the federal Department of Homeland Security's December 2004 National Response Plan clearly indicate that ultimate decision-making authority rested (or should have rested) with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), not with any state agency.

Last week, the Red Cross, which by law works under FEMA during national states of emergency, agreed that officials on the ground in New Orleans were taking the correct course of action in requesting or demanding that relief workers not enter the city before and after the storm. In a September 2 interview, Evans explained to CNN host Larry King that the Red Cross was not in New Orleans because "it was not safe to be in the city, and it's not been safe to go back into the city ... We were asked -- directed -- by the National Guard and the city and the state emergency management not to go into New Orleans because it was not safe."

Moreover, the frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) section on the Red Cross website includes an item, apparently posted on September 2, suggesting that military, state and local authorities were coordinating security and the relief effort. The FAQ noted that "Access to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities"; "The state Homeland Security Department had requested -- and continues to request -- that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane"; and "We will continue to work under the direction of the military, state and local authorities."

But in a September 6 appearance on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor -- by which time the administration's documented efforts to place blame for the relief fiasco entirely on Blanco were well underway -- Evans changed her tune. Although she had acknowledged in her Larry King interview that state and city officials had asked relief workers not to enter the city due to safety concerns, she told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that Red Cross workers had been poised to go in but were blocked -- and specifically by the state homeland security authorities -- "because they [state authorities] were trying to evacuate the city." Gone on September 6 were references, such as in the FAQ, to "requests" that the Red Cross stay out -- Evans was now saying categorically that the organization was "not allowed to go in." Gone was her noting that "it was not safe to be in the city, and it's not been safe to go back into the city." By the O'Reilly interview, Evans had shifted her rhetoric to suggest that the authorities were motivated only by "trying to evacuate the city." In an interview that aired on the September 8 edition of Fox News' Special Report, she said, "We understood that the thinking was that, if we were to come in, that, one, it would impede the evacuation." Only after prompting from O'Reilly did Evans agree that "a lot of it has to do with your security of your people." Finally, while the FAQ had mentioned both the state department of homeland security, and, more generally, "the military, state and local authorities" -- in her September 6 interview, Evans was more specific in naming "state homeland security authorities" as the culprits who barred the Red Cross from entering the city.

While Media Matters for America has found no evidence that Evans or the Red Cross was working with the White House to project a uniform message, Evans's rhetorical shift is consistent with the Bush administration's efforts to to blame and impute the motives of Blanco and other state and local officials. As Fox News general assignment reporter Major Garrett noted, because of the close relationship between FEMA and the Red Cross, the Red Cross has a direct interest in how FEMA looks to the media and the public: "When FEMA is tarred and feathered, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are tarred and feathered."

The Red Cross has political ties to the Bush administration as well. Evans donated $500 to the Republican National Committee in September 2004, while Red Cross chairman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter has donated more than $100,000 to Republican candidates and political committees since 1999. Media Matters found no record of any donations to Democrats by either Evans or McElveen-Hunter. President Bush, in fact, appointed McElveen-Hunter ambassador to Finland in 2001, a position she held until 2003.

Red Cross president Evans shifted emphasis from safety to evacuation incentives

In her September 6 interview on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Evans emphasized that the Red Cross was "ready" to enter New Orleans immediately after the storm, but was "not allowed" by "state homeland security authorities." This account stands in contrast to statements the prior week by Evans and other Red Cross officials.

Evans explained to CNN host Larry King during her September 2 interview that the Red Cross was not entering New Orleans due to concerns about personnel safety, as well as a desire not to provide survivors an incentive to stay in the dangerous conditions of the city:

KING: Joining us now in Washington is Marty Evans, the president and CEO of the American Red Cross. She traveled with the president today. The Red Cross is not in New Orleans. Why?

EVANS: Well, Larry, when the storm came, our goal was prior to landfall to support the evacuation. It was unsafe to be in the city. We were asked by the city not to be there, and the Superdome was made a shelter of last resorts and, quite frankly in retrospect, it was a good idea because otherwise those people would have had no shelter at all.

We have our shelters north of the city. We're prepared as soon as they can be evacuated, we're prepared to receive them in Texas, in other states, but it was not safe to be in the city, and it's not been safe to go back into the city. They were also concerned that if we located, relocated back into the city, people wouldn't leave, and they've got to leave.

[...]

EVANS: Well, Larry, we were asked, directed by the National Guard and the city and the state emergency management not to go into New Orleans because it was not safe. We are not a search and rescue organization. We provide shelter and basic support, and so we were depending, we are depending on the state and the agencies to get people to our shelters in safe places.

The Chicago Tribune described conditions in New Orleans as authorities tried to evacuate the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center in an article published later that evening:

A convoy of 1,200 National Guard troops rode into downtown to begin restoring order and delivering life-saving supplies more than four days after Hurricane Katrina stranded at least 100,000 citizens inside a city once known around the world as the "Big Easy" but now virtually indistinguishable from a war zone. Officials said 7,000 Guard personnel would be in the city by Saturday.

Looters were still running rampant, fires raged out of control in several buildings across the city and bloating corpses floated along flooded streets, but officials said they had nearly finished evacuating more than 30,000 refugees from the filthy Superdome and were now focusing on tens of thousands more huddled in and around the city's convention center.

In a FAQ apparently posted on its website September 2, the Red Cross emphasized that its "presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city," and noted that "[w]e are an organization of civilian volunteers and cannot get relief aid into any location until the local authorities say it is safe and provide us with security and access." The FAQ concludes by describing the Red Cross' "appropriate role" under the circumstances:

As the remaining people are evacuated from New Orleans, the most appropriate role for the Red Cross is to provide a safe place for people to stay and to see that their emergency needs are met. We are fully staffed and equipped to handle these individuals once they are evacuated.

These sentiments were echoed by Red Cross spokeswoman Renita Hosler, according to a September 3 Pittsburgh Post Gazette article. "Though frustrated, Hosler understood the reasons. The goal is to move people out of an uninhabitable city, and relief operations might keep them there. Security is so bad that she fears feeding stations might get ransacked. 'It's not about fault and blame right now. The situation is like an hourglass, and we are in the smallest part right now. Everything is trying to get through it,' she said. 'They're trying to help people get out,' " the Gazette reported. (The Gazette appears to have incorrectly reported that it was federal officials that had asked the Red Cross to stay out of New Orleans.)

Demonstrating the Red Cross' initial position that it was "on board" with the policy on the ground of keeping its relief workers out of New Orleans, a local Red Cross spokesman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, apparently still holds to this position. During the 1 p.m. ET segment of Fox News Live on September 8, Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson asked Red Cross spokesman Jason Golden whether the organization was "on board with this mission, then, to not have the Red Cross in New Orleans?" He responded, "Absolutely."

But Evans shifted her characterization of the decision during her September 6 interview on The O'Reilly Factor, emphasizing how the Red Cross was ready to enter the city but was "not allowed" by state authorities. It was O'Reilly himself who actually noted the risk to workers, which Evans subsequently acknowledged:

O'REILLY: But the Red Cross is running into some problems in the hurricane zone. Joining us now from Washington, Marty Evans, the head of the American Red Cross. So you had a hard time getting to the folks quickly. Why?

EVANS: Well, Bill, the specific issue is getting into New Orleans. And I want your audience to know that the Red Cross was ready from literally the moment after the storm passed through to go into New Orleans. We were not allowed to go in by the homeland security -- the state homeland security authorities. Red Cross is not a search and rescue organization. So we depend on the state and local authorities to, you know, make sure it's possible for us to get in. And in this particular case, they did not want us to go in because they were trying to evacuate the city. In the course of the storm, prior to its coming through, we evacuated. We sheltered in 90 shelters hundreds, thousands of people from New Orleans. So we have been ready to go in. We're ready today to go in. We're waiting for the word that it's possible to go.

O'REILLY: OK. But I think a lot of it has to do with your security of your people. In the first days after the hurricane, there was no security in the town. And if you had gone in, you know, the thugs with the AK-47s could have done damage, as they did to medevac workers, the hospital workers and doctors. We went all through that. Now it's under control.

EVANS: Right.

On September 8, the New Orleans Times-Picayune weblog cited Vic Howell, the head of the Capital Area chapter of the Red Cross, who reportedly said the Red Cross asked the Louisiana National Guard on September 1 for permission to enter the city and was asked to wait. According to the Times-Picayune, "Howell said that when he talked to [Col. Jay] Mayeaux [deputy director of the state's Office Of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness] on Sept. 2 he was told that they were then concentrating on search and rescue and getting everybody out of the city." But Evans made no distinction in her September 6 interview between the immediate hours and days after the storm and later in the week, when authorities were giving evacuation, search, and rescue as the primary reasons for not wanting the Red Cross and the city. By her revised account, the state had barred the Red Cross from the beginning only "because they were trying to evacuate the city."

Evans's narrowing of her focus onto the state department of homeland security and the shift in her and the Red Cross' characterization of the actions and motivations of authorities on the ground in trying to keep out the Red Cross track closely with the stated White House strategy to "move the blame for the slow response to Louisiana state officials," which The New York Times reported on September 5. Indeed, when Garrett was asked in a September 7 interview with radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt why the Red Cross was eager to get the story out there, he responded, "Because they work hand-in-glove with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When FEMA is tarred and feathered, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are tarred and feathered, because they work on a cooperative basis. They feel they are being sullied by this reaction."

Garrett's own reporting on Fox was carried extensively on September 7 and 8. On the evening of September 7, Garrett appeared on Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson. Playing a recording of Evans's claims on The O'Reilly Factor, Garrett reported, "Well, last night on The O'Reilly Factor, Red Cross president Marty Evans said the Red Cross was ready, ready to drive in food and water, but Louisiana officials said no." Later on Special Report with Brit Hume, Garrett elaborated on this revised explanation for the Red Cross' absence from New Orleans following the hurricane. Citing "one of their officials," Garrett repeated the Red Cross' suggestion that state officials' desire to encourage the evacuation of New Orleans was the primary reason relief workers did not enter New Orleans.

GARRETT: The state's own agency devoted to the state's homeland security. They told them, "You cannot go there." Why? The Red Cross tells me that state agency in Louisiana said, "Look, we do not want to create a magnet for more people to come to the Superdome or the convention center. We want to get them out." So at the same time local officials were screaming, "Where is the food? Where is the water?" The Red Cross was standing by, ready. The Louisiana department of homeland security said, "You can't go."

The September 8 edition of Special Report featured an extended discussion of the Red Cross' revised account of what happened and why. In video segments from a taped interview, Evans elaborated on the effect of the state homeland security authorities' purported ban on Red Cross workers, who had, she said, "great anguish about the fact they weren't able to help."

GARRETT: The Louisiana department of homeland security kept the Red Cross and Salvation Army from delivering relief supplies to stranded evacuees at the Superdome and New Orleans convention center.

EVANS: We were ready from literally the time the storm blew threw. We were ready to go. We just were not given permission to go in.

MAJ. GEORGE HOOD (Salvation Army spokesman): We were prepared. The intent and the will was definitely there.

GARRETT: State authorities told both relief organizations delivering food and water would impede evacuation efforts.

EVANS: We understood that the thinking was that, if we were to come in, that, one, it would impede the evacuation. They were trying to get everybody out. And, secondly, that it could possibly suggest that it was going to be OK to stay.

GARRETT: The scenes of suffering tore at the hearts of Red Cross volunteers.

EVANS: I don't think there was any Red Crosser either nearby the scene or even in Washington, D.C., who didn't just have great anguish about the fact that we weren't able to help.

[...]

GARRETT: But the process was agonizingly slow. City buses, supposed to be ready to transport residents to higher ground, stood unused. The state then asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to produce 1,100 buses. Relief agencies say the root of the problem was an inept evacuation of New Orleans.

EVANS: In a city such as New Orleans, it is extremely important to not only conceive a plan but to have a plan that is then executable and then is executed.

GARRETT: The Red Cross and Salvation Army provided shelter, food, and water to thousands of New Orleans residents outside the direct impact zone. But they couldn't reach the ones whose needs were most acute and most visible on television, because the state stuck with its evacuation plan.

Fox News also ran segments on the Red Cross story twice during the evening of September 7 and three more times in the morning and afternoon of September 8. It was also mentioned on Hannity & Colmes September 8.

Conservative blogs didn't have to wait for Evans's September 6 interview to blast state officials for their purported actions, but read much into the Red Cross' FAQ. Excerpting portions of the Red Cross' post, the weblog Cafe Hayek posted on September 3: "So, government decided that letting people die was a better course than risking any success that the Red Cross would likely have at providing disaster relief." The Instapundit blog focused blame on state officials, concluding, "So as I understand it, the Louisiana authorities don't want the Red Cross to provide services in New Orleans because that will discourage people from leaving?" The conservative blogs Power Line, Captain's Quarters, and Little Green Footballs all highlighted Garrett's interview with Hewitt on their sites September 7.

The conservative news websites NewsMax and WorldNetDaily repeated Garrett's characterization of the matter on September 7 and 8, respectively.

Limbaugh also repeatedly blamed "the governor's office" for the failure on the September 8 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show, stating "Louisiana state governor's office, 'Huhuh, huhuh, huhuh. No water, no food to the Superdome. We don't want to cause a magnet down there. Ah...' They know what freebies do. Ah, if, if, they'd have said, 'All the food and water you need at the Superdome,' nobody would have left town."

FEMA responsible for coordinating Red Cross efforts as well as emergency disaster relief

In touting Evans's assertion that state officials blocked the Red Cross from New Orleans to avoid encouraging people to stay or return, Fox News and others have omitted another key fact: It was the federal government that was primarily responsible for coordinating operations, including the activities of the Red Cross. Presumably, if FEMA had deemed it necessary for the Red Cross to enter New Orleans, the agency could have intervened with state authorities at any time. Both the federal Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) December 2004 National Response Plan (NRP) and the Red Cross' charter clearly place the Red Cross under the purview of FEMA. Further, the response plan stipulates that federal agencies should strive for full coordination with state officials but not allow such coordination to "impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources."

According to the federal charter of the American Red Cross, the organization has "the legal status of 'a federal instrumentality' " with "responsibilities delegated to it by the Federal government." Listed among these responsibilities is "to maintain a system of domestic and international disaster relief, including mandated responsibilities under the Federal Response Plan coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)."

The NRP represents the most recently approved "federal response plan." It confirms that the Red Cross falls under the purview of the federal government:

This plan is applicable to all Federal departments and agencies that may be requested to provide assistance or conduct operations in the context of actual or potential Incidents of National Significance. This includes the American Red Cross, which functions as an Emergency Support Function (ESF) primary organization in coordinating the use of mass care resources in a Presidentially declared disaster or emergency.

[...]

Departments and agencies at all levels of government and certain NGOs, such as the American Red Cross, may be required to deploy to Incidents of National Significance on short notice to provide timely and effective mutual aid and/or intergovernmental assistance.

But as journalist Joshua Micah Marshall noted in a timeline on his Talking Points Memo blog, it wasn't until Wednesday, August 31, two days after the hurricane struck, that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff declared Katrina an 'Incident of National Significance,' "triggering for the first time a coordinated federal response to states and localities overwhelmed by disaster," according to the Associated Press.

The NRP establishes the Red Cross as a "primary agency" under the Emergency Support Function (ESF) structure, which consists of 12 "precise components that can best address the requirements" of an "incident of national significance." Specifically, the Red Cross is responsible for the "mass care" element of ESF component No. 6. Mass care services include the "sheltering of victims, organizing feeding operations, providing emergency first aid at designated sites, collecting and providing information on victims to family members, and coordinating bulk distribution of emergency relief items." The NRP designates both DHS and FEMA as the coordinators of ESF No. 6 and stipulates that the Red Cross should be treated as a federal agency in its disaster relief capacity:

For the purposes of the National Response Plan, the American Red Cross functions as an ESF primary organization in coordinating the use of Federal mass care resources in the context of Incidents of National Significance. For the purposes of ESF #6, any reference to Federal departments and agencies with respect to responsibilities and activities in responding to an Incident of National Significance includes the American Red Cross.

Moreover, the NRP directs FEMA 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. In the case of "catastrophic events," such as what occurred in New Orleans, it calls for heightened and "proactive" federal involvement to manage the disaster. Catastrophic events are defined as incidents that immediately outstrip the resources of state and local governments. FEMA viewed a major hurricane strike in New Orleans as a "catastrophic" event when it (via Marshall's Talking Points Memo weblog) proposed studies to formulate a disaster relief plan. The response plan's "guiding principles" make clear that, in these "catastrophic" cases, the federal government would operate independently to provide assistance, rather than simply supporting or cajoling state authorities:

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.

In addition, in a July 2004 planning exercise called "Hurricane 'Pam'," federal and state emergency planners under FEMA's direction examined the consequences of major hurricane striking New Orleans. They reported that the federal government should not wait for requests from state and local officials to respond:

"Federal support must be provided in a timely manner to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate severe damage," the report says. "This may require mobilizing and deploying assets before they are requested via normal (National Response Plan) protocols."

On the defensive, White House officials have said Louisiana and New Orleans officials did not give FEMA full control over disaster relief. The so-called Hurricane Pam plan, which was never put into effect, envisions giving the federal government authority to act without waiting for an SOS from local officials. [Associated Press, 9/9/05]

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