On the September 5 edition of Fox News' Special Report, host Brit Hume claimed that New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin had ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city on August 28 after President Bush “pleaded” with him. During the same show, Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson repeated the claim, reporting that Nagin had proceeded with the mandatory evacuation “only after President Bush insisted that he do so.” But while numerous conservative weblogs had earlier made nearly identical claims, news reports indicate that Bush called Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- not Nagin -- on the morning of August 28 to ensure that such precautions would be taken. Moreover, Blanco stated that Bush called “just before” she and Nagin held a press conference to announce the mandatory evacuation, casting doubt over Hume and Wilson's suggestion that Bush's phone call triggered the decision to evacuate.
The August 28 press conference began with Nagin's statement that “a mandatory evacuation order is hereby called for all of the parish of Orleans.” Following Nagin's remarks, Blanco commented on the grave situation facing the city:
BLANCO: I want to reiterate what the mayor has said. This is a very dangerous time. Just before we walked into this room, President Bush called and told me to share with all of you that he is very concerned about the citizens. He is concerned about the impact that this hurricane would have on our people. And he asked me to please ensure that there would be a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.
Later that morning, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Bush had called “shortly before” the press conference began:
The governor also said that President Bush had telephoned shortly before the 9:30 a.m. press conference began. She said Bush said he was “very concerned about the storm's impact” and urged Blanco and Nagin to order the evacuation.
The Associated Press reported that Blanco said that Bush had called and “personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation,” but the AP omitted Blanco's report that he called “just before” the press conference began:
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, standing beside the mayor at a news conference, said President Bush called and personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation for the low-lying city, which is prone to flooding.
Four days later, on September 2, the conservative weblog Power Line highlighted the August 28 AP article under the headline "Why Was New Orleans Evacuated?" The blog entry claimed that Bush had “prompted the evacuation order” and concluded that “New Orleans and its residents owe the President a profound debt of gratitude.” Several other conservative bloggers soon picked up on the story and proceeded to further embellish President Bush's effect on the decision to evacuate:
- On National Review Online's group blog The Corner, editor Kathryn Jean Lopez linked to the Power Line entry and wrote that Blanco had said she ordered the evacuation “only after” the president's phone call.
- In a post at Blogcritics.org, David Flanagan claimed that the order was the result of a “special request” from Bush.
- Redstate.org excerpted the AP article under the headline “Bush Pleaded with Nagin, Blanco to Evacuate N.O.” and wondered, “God knows what would have happened had the President not interceded with Gov. Blanco to order a mandatory evacuation of the city.”
The Power Line entry and the AP article continued to circulate throughout the conservative blogosphere over the weekend. On the Monday night edition of Special Report, however, despite no further evidence that Bush had spoken directly with Nagin or that his phone call had prompted the evacuation order, Hume informed millions of viewers that the president had “pleaded” with the New Orleans mayor to evacuate the city, and Wilson reported that the order had come at President Bush's insistence:
HUME: New Orleans' local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, says every FEMA official should be fired for their, quote, “feeble response to Hurricane Katrina.” And the paper's editors say the aftermath is, quote, “ultimately the president's failure.” But the paper has had nothing but praise for the performance of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, finding no fault with his failure to enforce the mandatory evacuation order he issued last Sunday. That order was issued only after the director of the National Hurricane Center called Nagin at home on Saturday night and after President Bush pleaded with the mayor the next day to evacuate New Orleans in a mandatory way.
WILSON: In times of natural disaster, government is supposed to work from the bottom up. Back when Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane roiling in the Gulf of Mexico, city and county leaders across the Gulf Coast were calling the shots. Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans just 24 hours before the hurricane hit, but only after President Bush insisted that he do so.