Media largely ignored relief delays caused by Bush's New Orleans visit

In reporting on President Bush's September 2 visit to New Orleans to survey damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, most national media outlets* have ignored reports that helicopter flights were banned for the duration of Bush's stay, stalling relief efforts and preventing sick and injured survivors from being airlifted to treatment centers.

Citing Rep. Charlie Melancon's (D-LA) chief of staff, a September 3 New Orleans Times-Picayune article reported that crews were unable to deliver three tons of food for hurricane survivors in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish and Algiers Point on September 2, as “air traffic was halted because of President Bush's visit to New Orleans.” The food, secured by Melancon and Bob Odom, Louisiana's agriculture commissioner, “baked in the afternoon sun as Bush surveyed damage across southeast Louisiana,” according to the Times-Picayune. A September 2 Associated Press article reported the difficulty Melancon had in contacting Bush regarding federal aid for refugees in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and also noted Melancon's claim that the restriction on air traffic hindered getting aid to those parishes. According to the AP:

In St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, just south of New Orleans, victims of the hurricane are still waiting for food and water and for buses to escape the floodwaters, Melancon said. And for the entire time Bush was in the state, the congressman said, a ban on helicopter flights further stalled the delivery of food and supplies.

“I thank the president for his visit today, but it was more show than substance,” Melancon said. “Frankly, we needed action days ago.”

Another September 2 AP article cited a paramedic who reported that helicopters transporting sick and injured refugees to a makeshift treatment center at New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport were “stopped” upon Bush's arrival, though the AP did not indicate the duration or effect of their grounding. According to the AP: “Helicopters flying patients in for treatment were stopped Friday when President Bush arrived. But the president didn't enter the airport, which swelled with armed guards during his visit, [paramedic James] Teague said.”

A Nexis search of national print and broadcast news reports from September 2-6 revealed that, aside from the AP, no other major news outlet reported the claims regarding the effect of Bush's visit on the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Citing White House press secretary Scott McClellan, The New York Times reported on September 6 that Bush “did not want to disrupt continuing relief efforts” in New Orleans during his return visit to Louisiana on September 5 but failed to note Melancon's claim that Bush had disrupted relief efforts three days earlier.

From the September 6 New York Times:

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Bush did not go to New Orleans Monday because he had visited it on Friday. On that visit, however, he did not go to the Superdome or the convention center, where tens of thousands of largely poor and black victims had been desperate for food and water for days, and some older evacuees had died in their wheelchairs. Mr. Bush did speak at the New Orleans airport and visit the repair work under way at the 17th Street Canal, where he met with workers, some of whom had lost their homes.

Mr. McClellan also said Mr. Bush steered clear of New Orleans Monday because he did not want to disrupt continuing relief efforts.

“Today, he wanted to visit citizens of New Orleans who have been evacuated and are in need of continued assistance, as well as volunteers who are helping them,” Mr. McClellan said in an e-mail message.

*Media Matters for America's search included major newspapers and news wires (The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Knight Ridder), and network news programs.