In consecutive front-page reports, The Washington Post featured mischaracterizations and outright falsehoods that had the effect of masking the Bush administration's apparent culpability in the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans.
On September 8, the Post falsely reported that "the Bush administration's funding requests for the key New Orleans flood-control projects for the past five years were slightly higher than the Clinton administration's for its past five years," a claim that was subsequently picked up in a September 9 Post column by Charles Krauthammer and by Fox News host Brit Hume on the "Grapevine" segment of the September 8 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume. In fact, the Clinton administration's budgets for 1996-2000 requested many times more money for the Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection program that the Post referenced than the Bush administration did for fiscal years 2002-2006, and Clinton also proposed significantly more federal money for other key flood-control projects in New Orleans and budgeted more money for the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Then, in a September 9 article noting that the Bush administration made patronage appointments of officials "lacking disaster experience" to top positions in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), including FEMA director Michael D. Brown, the Post reported that such appointments "are nothing new to Washington administrations." But the Post failed to note that, although they may have gone to individuals with connections to the Clinton administration, the top positions in FEMA during that time were given to officials with experience and expertise in emergency management.
The September 8 Post report
In the September 8 article by staff writer Michael Grunwald, the Post noted that the Bush administration has proposed far less funding for flood-control projects in New Orleans than Louisiana politicians have requested but then erroneously reported that the Bush administration's funding requests were "slightly higher" than the Clinton administration's:
Louisiana's politicians have requested much more money for New Orleans hurricane protection than the Bush administration has proposed or Congress has provided. In the last budget bill, Louisiana's delegation requested $27.1 million for shoring up levees around Lake Pontchartrain, the full amount the Corps had declared as its "project capability." Bush suggested $3.9 million, and Congress agreed to spend $5.7 million.
Administration officials also dramatically scaled back a long-term project to restore Louisiana's disappearing coastal marshes, which once provided a measure of natural hurricane protection for New Orleans. They ordered the Corps to stop work on a $14 billion plan, and devise a $2 billion plan instead.
But overall, the Bush administration's funding requests for the key New Orleans flood-control projects for the past five years were slightly higher than the Clinton administration's for its past five years.
The next day, Post columnist Krauthammer repeated the erroneous claim: "[Bush] administration budget requests for New Orleans flood control during the five Bush years exceed those of the five preceding Clinton years."
The Post's assertion about Bush funding requests relative to Clinton's is false. Although the flood-control project that the Post article referenced, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Hurricane Protection Project for Lake Pontchartrain, was designed to protect the city from a Category 3 Hurricane -- Katrina was a more powerful Category 4 storm -- the Annenberg Political Fact Check's FactCheck.org has noted that it was nonetheless the project "most closely associated with preventing flooding in New Orleans." But contrary to the Post's report, a comparison of budget numbers from 1996 to 2006 demonstrates that the Clinton administration requested far more money for that program than the Bush administration did. Further, the Bush administration also proposed dramatic cuts to another critical flood-control program in Louisiana that the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers has acknowledged could have aided the relief effort.
As the budget figures available on the Government Printing Office (GPO) website indicate, Clinton proposed $12.5 million for "Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity (Hurricane Protection)" in fiscal year 1996, $13.3 million in 1997, $17 million in 1998, and $16 million in 2000 (1999's data was not available on the GPO website). By contrast, as FactCheck.org noted on September 2, an Army Corps of Engineers fact sheet on the project noted that Bush proposed $3.9 million for fiscal year 2005 and $3 million for fiscal year 2006, both figures deemed by the Army Corps of Engineers to be "insufficient to fund new construction contracts." The Post itself reported the 2005 figure in a September 2 report. According to a June 8, 2004, report by the New Orleans Tmes-Picayune (partially republished here), Bush proposed $3 million in fiscal year 2004. As The Dallas Morning News reported on September 5, Bush's requested funding for the project in 2002 and 2003 was still a third to half of what Clinton annually proposed:
For hurricane protection on Lake Pontchartrain and vicinity, President Bush's five-year total, $22 million, is about a fifth of the sum sought by corps and Louisiana officials. The Bush administration budgeted $7.5 million for fiscal 2002 and $4.9 million for 2003.
Further, the Clinton administration also requested greater funding for another crucial flood-control project in New Orleans. As Philadelphia Daily News senior writer Will Bunch noted in an August 31 report published in Editor & Publisher, in 2005 the Bush administration proposed dramatically cutting the proposed level of funding for the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA) to less than a third of what it had received annually on average since it was initiated in 1995:
When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.
Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.
Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle.
The 2004 hurricane season was the worst in decades. In spite of that, the federal government came back this spring with the steepest reduction in hurricane and flood-control funding for New Orleans in history. Because of the proposed cuts, the Corps office there imposed a hiring freeze. Officials said that money targeted for the SELA project -- $10.4 million, down from $36.5 million -- was not enough to start any new jobs.
As the Associated Press reported on September 1, although Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said that more funding for SELA would not have completely prevented the disaster in New Orleans, he said it would have helped the disaster relief effort:
A senior Corps commander discounted the notion the disaster could have been averted by full funding of projects such as new and beefed up levees to protect against hurricane surges from Lake Pontchartrain and improving pumping and drainage capacity in New Orleans.
"These (projects) were not funded at the full ability of the Corps of Engineers to execute the project," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. "But the important question is, 'Would that have made a difference?' And my assessment is, no, it would not."
But Strock did acknowledge that more funding for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Control Project would allow the Corps to more quickly pump out the floodwaters inundating New Orleans.
"Had we had the SELA project finished ... we could more efficiently move the water out of the system because it's a big drainage project," Strock said.
Nonetheless, on the September 8 edition of Fox News' Special Report, Hume echoed -- and slightly misrepresented -- the Post's faulty analysis, making a different misleading suggestion that Louisiana has benefited because the Bush administration has provided more overall funding for the Army Corps of Engineers than the Clinton administration:
HUME: Democrats and some former government engineers blame President Bush for cutting the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers, claiming the cuts left New Orleans unprepared for a major storm. ButThe Washington Post reports the Bush administration has actually granted the Corps more funding than the previous administration over a similar period and that Louisiana has received far more money for civil works projects than any other state.
In fact, while the overall funding for the Army Corps of Engineers has marginally increased under the Bush administration, Bush has proposed large cuts to the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers. As FactCheck.org documented, a February 7 article by the New Orleans CityBusiness newspaper reported that the amount of money dedicated to Army Corps of Engineers construction projects in New Orleans declined by more than 44 percent, from $147 million in 2001 to $82 million in 2005. Further, a June 6 report by New Orleans CityBusiness noted that, overall, the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled to face a further $71.2 million reduction in federal funding from fiscal year 2005 to 2006.
In the September 9 Post report, staff writer Spencer S. Hsu noted that "[f]ive of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters," and that FEMA's top three leaders "arrived with ties to President Bush's 2000 campaign or to the White House advance operation, according to the agency." Yet unlike other news outlets, in reporting that "[p]atronage appointments to the crisis-response agency are nothing new to Washington administrations," thePost failed to mention the contrast between Bush's patronage appointments to FEMA and the appointment of experienced disaster relief professionals that occurred under Clinton.
Unlike current FEMA director Brown, former director James Lee Witt had significant experience in dealing with emergencies when he was appointed by Clinton in 1993. As his FEMA biography notes, Witt "was the first agency head who came to the position with experience in emergency management, having previously served as the Director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services for four years."
Other news reports noted the experience of FEMA's top officials during the Clinton administration. For example, a September 9 Los Angeles Times report cited an expert who noted that the Clinton administration made appointments to the agency based on "expertise" rather than patronage:
In addition to reporting Witt's background, a September 7 Chicago Tribune report also noted that Witt's top assistants also were highly experienced: "Witt's top aides in 2000, Lynn Canton and Michael Armstrong, ran regional FEMA offices for at least three years before assuming senior positions in Washington."
Paul Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University who has testified before Congress on FEMA's role in the Department of Homeland Security, said that for years, FEMA was a dumping ground for the politically connected.
But during the Clinton years, Light said, FEMA Director James Lee Witt "built a serious hierarchy around expertise. Somewhere along the line, FEMA has returned to being a destination of last resort for political appointees."