Following White House's lead, Special Report investigation into Katrina response shifted blame to state, local officials

In news segments on four successive nights, correspondents for Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume have focused blame for the widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina almost entirely on state and local officials, largely ignoring the federal government's widely reported failures in handling the hurricane and its aftermath. Special Report's focus on the failures of state and local officials reflected an alleged White House public relations strategy -- as recently reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post -- to deflect blame onto the Louisiana governor and state agencies.

According to Special Report host Brit Hume, Fox News congressional correspondent Brian Wilson's September 5 report would provide insight into "[w]ho has authority to organize relief and rescue in times of natural disaster." But Wilson placed the blame squarely on local officials. After asserting that “city and county leaders across the Gulf Coast were calling the shots” when Katrina first approached the Gulf of Mexico, Wilson baselessly claimed that New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans “only after President Bush insisted that he do so.” As Media Matters for America has noted, news reports indicate that Bush called Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco -- not Nagin -- on the morning of August 28 to ensure that such precautions would be taken, and Blanco stated that Bush called “just before” she and Nagin walked into a press conference to announce the mandatory evacuation, casting doubt over Wilson's claim that Bush's phone call triggered the decision to evacuate.

Wilson's report also defended the federal response to the hurricane. Wilson claimed that “federal resources were being pre-deployed two days before the hurricane hit land,” and in any event, “experts we spoke with today said that state and local planners should always operate under the assumption that, in a major natural disaster, it will take 48 hours for the federal government to respond in a meaningful way.” The only “experts” Wilson cited in his report were current and former Bush administration officials: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown, former Bush administration homeland security official Frank J. Cilluffo, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Hume provided a similar introduction to a news segment by Fox News correspondent Major Garrett on September 6, suggesting that in light of the “near universal agreement among politicians and the press alike that there was a major failure by the federal government,” Garrett's report would help answer "[h]ow much responsibility belongs there, and how much may belong elsewhere." But Garrett's report also focused almost entirely on the actions of local and state officials. Of the six rhetorical questions Garrett included in the “raft of nagging questions” remaining after the hurricane, five dealt exclusively with the state and local response. Some of those questions included: “Did New Orleans assume lead authority for dealing with Katrina?,” “When did New Orleans officials tell residents to evacuate?,” and “Did Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco hesitate when offered federal military aid?” Only one of Garrett's answers even suggested that the federal government might share responsibility: “Did New Orleans and federal officials know how dangerous Katrina could be? Yes.”

Even during a September 6 interview on Special Report with one of the key figures in charge of engineering the federal government's response to the hurricane -- FEMA director Brown -- correspondent Bill Hemmer failed to press Brown about FEMA's management of emergency operations during the disaster, instead asking Brown's assessment of the state and city's efforts. Hemmer characterized Brown's situation as being a “bulls-eye of blame” but defined his critics as being “on the outside looking in.” Hemmer also offered Brown the opportunity to pin blame for the poor response to the hurricane on state and local officials, asking him whether they “faltered in their response a week ago.”

Hume's September 7 interview with Garrett portrayed FEMA as an agency caught between “its own bureaucratic boastfulness” and state and local failings. Garrett commented that FEMA couldn't send the Red Cross into New Orleans because it had “no jurisdiction,” and faulted the “Louisiana department of homeland security” for purportedly barring the Red Cross from entering the city. Garrett also noted that FEMA had no jurisidiction over the Louisiana National Guard. “So, essentially, FEMA was trapped between two bureaucracies,” commented Garrett. “One, the Department of Homeland Security, where many of its decisions have to be at least reviewed and, in some cases, approved, and a recalcitrant state bureaucracy, who wasn't going to give them the authority they needed to make things happen, among them the National Guard.” Garrett and Hume then critically reviewed the state and city's pre- and post-hurricane evacuation plans. Hume summed up the discussion, “It sounds as if the state will have much to answer for in the investigation coming before Congress, as well as the federal government,” to which Garrett replied, “It appears to be that.”

But Garrett's claim that FEMA had no jurisdiction to send the Red Cross into New Orleans over the objections of a state agency is highly misleading. Indeed, the federal Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan (NRP), finalized in December 2004, stipulates that the Red Cross is to be considered a federal agency during a national state of emergency and coordinated by FEMA. Further, during “catastrophic events” -- such as what occurred in New Orleans -- the NRP calls for heightened and “proactive” federal involvement to manage the disaster and instructs federal agencies to not allow coordination with state officials to “impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources.” Therefore, if FEMA had deemed it necessary for the Red Cross to enter the city of New Orleans, the agency could have presumably overruled state authorities.

Garrett's September 8 report -- which, according to Hume, looked deeper into “what went on behind the scenes during the turmoil and suffering unleashed by Hurricane Katrina,” and “found answers” -- also discussed only problems with the state and local response. He devoted half his report to allegations that Louisiana state homeland security officials had stopped the Red Cross and the Salvation Army from delivering emergency supplies to hurricane victims at the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome. The other half dealt with problems encountered by the Louisiana National Guard in caring for those at the Superdome, as well as failings with the city's evacuation plans. Garrett noted that city buses stood idle, and that “The state then asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to produce 1,100 buses.” However, rather than discussing what happened to that request, Garrett again reported on city officials, summarizing a quote by American Red Cross president and CEO Marsha J. “Marty” Evans as "[r]elief agencies say the root of the problem [at the Superdome] was an inept evacuation of New Orleans."

But in their investigations into federal vs. state responsibility, Hume, Hemmer, Garrett, and Wilson all neglected to mention widely reported failures in the federal response to Katrina. Some examples include:

  • The Washington Post reported on September 4 that current and former FEMA officials, as well as outside experts, criticized the overall federal response, and specifically targeted FEMA. “Despite four years and tens of billions of dollars spent preparing for the worst, the federal government was not ready when it came at daybreak on Monday, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former senior officials and outside experts. ... Among the flaws they cited: Failure to take the storm seriously before it hit and trigger the government's highest level of response. Rebuffed offers of aid from the military, states and cities. An unfinished new plan meant to guide disaster response. And a slow bureaucracy that waited until late Tuesday to declare the catastrophe 'an incident of national significance,' the new federal term meant to set off the broadest possible relief effort.”
  • The USS Bataan, after following Katrina towards landfall, remained off the Louisiana coast, ready to aid Katrina's victims. However, the September 4 Chicago Tribune reported that the ship's sizable medical staff lacked needed direction from FEMA about where to provide aid.
  • Why did Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and President Bush learn that New Orleans' levees had given way and that the city was flooding 12 hours after local media had reported it?
  • Why did the federal government not declare an “incident of national significance” until late Sept. 2, almost four days after the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the New Orleans levees had been breached? [The Washington Post, 9/4/05]
  • Why did Brown falsely claim on the September 2 edition of NBC's Today that "[w]e've provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they've gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day"? As Media Matters has noted, an NBC News photojournalist reported on September 1 that the people at the convention center had received neither food nor water for four days.
  • Why did FEMA assign Salt Lake City firefighters to hand out fliers and participate in presidential photo opportunities rather than assist in emergency operations? [The Salt Lake Tribune, 9/6/05, via journalist Joshua Micah Marshall's weblog Talking Points Memo]
  • What about concerns that have been raised about the disaster management qualifications of Brown and his top deputies at FEMA?
  • Why did the federal government take five days to provide the paperwork to move New Mexico National Guard troops to Louisiana? While New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) offered the troops, and Blanco accepted them on August 28, the paperwork did not arrive until September 1 [Associated Press, 9/3/05]

From the September 5 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

HUME: In the days following Hurricane Katrina, officials at every level and many victims have complained that some unnamed “they” did not respond to the disaster in a timely fashion. So who are or is “they”? Who has authority to organize relief and rescue in times of natural disaster? Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson sorts out the answer to that question.

[begin videotape]

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. City emergency planners had long known that as many as 100,000 people could not leave the city without assistance. Since the 1980s, scientists have known the levees there would likely fail in a Category 4 or 5 storm. When local officials become overwhelmed, they are supposed to turn to the state's governor, who in turn can request federal assistance from the president. In the case of Katrina, President Bush declared an emergency, and federal resources were being pre-deployed two days before the hurricane hit land.

BROWN: I am already beginning to dispatch urban search-and-rescue teams. I'm beginning to move commodities in, the Meals Ready-to-Eat, water, ice, cots. Our national emergency response team is getting ready to go to Baton Rouge right now. I'm going to lean very far forward on this particular storm.

WILSON: New Orleans officials are angry because federal aid was slow in arriving. FEMA officials say they were delayed by rising flooding waters and by anarchy in the streets. A former Department of Homeland Security official believes more thought should be given to lawlessness that might occur in times of disaster.

CILLUFFO: Looting is something that I'm not sure we've factored as much as we should in future scenarios. We're dealing with un-governability to some extent, and lawlessness, and, to some extent, panic.

WILSON: Only a governor can order the state's National Guard troops to back up local police at such times. The president can send in U.S. military personnel, but they may not operate in a law enforcement capacity, a point made by the secretary of defense on Sunday.

RUMSFELD: The Department of Defense is not involved in law enforcement in the state of Louisiana. We're here to assist with evacuation. We're here to assist with humanitarian activities.

WILSON: That's because of a legal doctrine known as Posse Comitatus, which has been on the books since the 1870s. The experts we spoke with today said that state and local planners should always operate under the assumption that, in a major natural disaster, it will take 48 hours for the federal government to respond in a meaningful way.

From the September 6 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume:

HUME: As the response to Hurricane Katrina continues, there seems to be near-universal agreement among politicians and the press alike that there was a major failure by the federal government. How much responsibility belongs there, and how much may belong elsewhere?

FOX News correspondent Major Garrett has some questions and some answers.

[begin videotape]

GARRETT: Left behind in Katrina's wake: death, destruction and a raft of nagging questions. Did New Orleans and federal officials know how dangerous Katrina could be? Yes. A warning Saturday from the National Hurricane Center prompted a federal state of emergency declaration and preliminary evacuation orders.

Did New Orleans assume lead authority for dealing with Katrina? Yes. The city's office of emergency preparedness says it's the first line of defense. “We coordinate all city, department, and allied state and federal agencies which respond to city-wide disasters and emergencies, through the development and constant upgrading of an integrated, multi-hazard plan. All requests for federal disaster assistance and federal funding, subsequent to disaster declarations, are also made through this office.”

When did New Orleans officials tell residents to evacuate? Mayor Ray Nagin issued a voluntary evacuation order at 5:00 p.m. Saturday. When did Nagin issue the mandatory evacuation order? Sunday morning. Why the delay? Nagin said he needed to research his legal authority. But the city's emergency guide outlines procedures for a mandatory evacuation, suggesting Nagin had the authority or, at minimum, the city contemplated it's use.

BLANCO: We both stood there and begged people to leave. We told them how they could leave. We told them that there would be bus service.

GARRETT: Why didn't the city use its fleet of buses to evacuate residents? Nagin says they were only used to transport people to the Superdome.

NAGIN: We went and dispatched the buses to the neighborhoods to pick people up for free and take them to the Superdome, which is the only shelter in the city that can handle a storm.

GARRETT: Did the city prepare to provide services at the Superdome? No. Its website says, quote, “Only minimal services will be provided at locations,” meaning evacuation shelters. “Bring your own food, water and bedding. Eat a full meal before arriving.” Nagin repeated that message Saturday. “Bring small quantities of foot for three or four days to be safe,” the mayor said on local television. Why didn't the city use its buses to evacuate the Superdome? Too much water, Nagin says.

NAGIN: The water was everywhere. There was no escape routes.

GARRETT: Did Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco hesitate when offered federal military aid? Nagin suggested she did in a Friday meeting with President Bush. “There were two options to the governor,” Nagin says now. “I was ready to move today. The governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision.” Blanco told reporters today the federal offer was too complex. The president's spokesman declined to say if Blanco turned down military assistance to help quell the violence.

Earlier in that same show, Hemmer interviewed Brown:

HUME: Fox News correspondent Bill Hemmer accompanied the embattled director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mike Brown, today to get an overview of the situation in St. Bernard Parish. While there, Bill asked Brown for his response to the deluge of criticism he has received. Here is some of that interview.

[begin videotape]

HEMMER: You have been a bull's-eye of blame by many, many people on the outside looking in.

BROWN: Right, right.

HEMMER: What would you say to those people who believe people like Mike Brown have not done the job and have not lived up to the responsibilities given to him?

BROWN: Don't look at those folks in there. Those are my people in here doing everything they can. Let them lay the blame on me if they want to. That's fine. I'm here to help people, and I'm not going to allow that to distract from what my job is, is getting it done.

HEMMER: And did you see this editorial this week in the largest newspaper in the state of Louisiana? They're saying that President Bush should fire you, and they're saying President Bush should fire every leading official at FEMA. To that newspaper, what would you say?

BROWN: The president can do that if he wants to. We're too busy here helping people. That's what we're going to do.

HEMMER: Do you still enjoy this job? And will you continue to do it?

BROWN: Yes. You know what? This is all about helping people. And, you know, I wish I could have gotten people in here, but FEMA is not a first-responder. I don't have cops and firefighters. That's a local government responsibility, and that's what they do. And we try to assist them as much as we can. And so it drives me nuts when I see the fact that people don't have communications for, you know, two days, four days, or five days.

HEMMER: You know, when you say that about local governments, do you think the government here in the state of Louisiana, or the city of New Orleans, or these various parishes, do you think they faltered in their response a week ago?

BROWN: Look, Bill, you're not going to suck me into that blame game. Because right now, it's all about trying to help disaster victims and get these places to rebuild. And we just need to help everybody get this thing back together. We need to have a real serious policy debate about what the role of the federal government is, because this disaster exemplifies all of the kinds of things that need to be discussed, the levees, the evacuations, communications, the role of first-responders, and who really are the first- responders. All of those are policy debates this country needs to have, and who's responsibility is it to see that all those things get done.

HEMMER: Inside there, when that gentlemen who leads this parish said he saw Canadian police here before he saw American military arrive in town, or the National Guard, how can you address an issue like that, when this is American soil and not Canadian soil?

BROWN: Well, I can't speak for the National Guard. So I don't know why the National Guard wasn't here. I don't know if they were or were not here. I know that we've had people here, and we'll continue to have people here.You know, I hear those stories all the time. You know, Canadian police were here, or somebody from Colorado was here, whatever. I don't know whether it's true or not. All I know is that we're here to help, and we'll continue to do that.

From the September 7 edition of Special Report:

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): The press could get in and out of there, could bring in their TV trucks and everything else, why the hell couldn't a truckload of water, a truckload of medicine, a busload of physicians, why couldn't they get through?

HUME: An indignant Senator Leahy asking a question no doubt asked by many others. Fox News correspondent Major Garrett has been looking for answers to some of those questions. He joins me now. Major, first of all, obviously, the focus of all of the attention has been FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. What is FEMA?

GARRETT: The Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2,500 full-time employees, 4,000 standby employees. A mission statement very simple: Prepare, respond, help recover, reduce risk. How does it do it? By coordinating with state and local entities and other groups, the Salvation Army, Red Cross, dedicated to helping the needy when disaster strikes.

HUME: So FEMA is relatively -- it isn't very labor intensive. It mostly works through other agencies?

GARRETT: It works through other agencies. But it has been moved into the Department of Homeland Security. In this crisis, it is a bit a victim of its own bureaucratic boastfulness. Earlier this year, the new national response plan, released by the Department of Homeland Security, promised this: Seamless integration of the federal government when an incident exceeds local and state capabilities. In the minds of many Americans, this one did, and FEMA, at least initially, in the minds of some, didn't not respond enough.

HUME: Yes, and the word “seamless” doesn't exactly spring to mind.

GARRETT: No, it does not.

HUME: But look, I mean, they're down there. The Red Cross, for example, is there.

GARRETT: Standing by, ready.

HUME: Standing by, ready. Why didn't FEMA send the Red Cross into New Orleans when we had all of those people there on that bridge overpass and elsewhere?

GARRETT: At the Superdome, at the convention center --

HUME: Lack of water, right. Why not?

GARRETT: First of all, no jurisdiction. FEMA works with the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other organizations, but it has no direct control to order them to go one place or the other. Secondarily, the Red Cross was ready. I just got off the phone with one of their officials. They had a vanguard, Brit, of trucks with water, food, hygiene equipment, all sorts of things ready to go, where? To the Superdome and the convention center. Why weren't they there? The Louisiana department of homeland security told them they could not go.

HUME: Now, this is the Louisiana -- this isn't the Louisiana branch of the federal Homeland Security? This is --

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 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.”

HUME: All right. FEMA does presumably, at some point, have some jurisdiction over some military forces. Of course, the first-responders there are the National Guard. Why didn't FEMA send the National Guard in? You heard that cry from many people.

GARRETT: FEMA does not have jurisdictional control over any state's National Guard. Only the governor does. The governor, in this case, Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, did use the Louisiana National Guard for some purposes, did not deploy them in massive numbers initially. And they were not used to move any of these relief organizations in. And they could have been, for the very same reason I talked about earlier. The state decided they didn't want the relief organizations where the people needed it most, because they wanted those people to get out.

HUME: But even today, we know that Governor Blanco has now decided that a mandatory evacuation may not be necessarily after all. But we can go into that later.

GARRETT: So she says.

HUME: What about the use of, by her, of the National Guard to impose law and order during the early looting and all of that?

GARRETT: She had a choice, as I am told. She could have taken up the offer from FEMA to federalize all of the activities in Louisiana, meaning that FEMA would be in control of everything, not only law enforcement, but everything else. She declined to give them that authority. So, essentially, FEMA was trapped between two bureaucracies. One, the Department of Homeland Security, where many of its decisions have to be at least reviewed and, in some cases, approved, and a recalcitrant state bureaucracy, who wasn't going to give them the authority they needed to make things happen, among them the National Guard.

HUME: What about this evacuation problem? That clearly was something that New Orleans knew it faced to some extent.

GARRETT: And the city [sic] of Louisiana. They have a whole plan that contemplates dealing with an evacuation in the effect of a hurricane three, four or five. Their own plan says, “One hundred thousand residents minimum from the New Orleans area will have to be evacuated.” This plan makes it clear...

HUME: You mean, that can't get out on their own?

GARRETT: That these people will not have their own vehicles. Not only that, it stipulates that these people are disproportionately poor, sick, and in need of special transportation assistance. And, Brit, I think in these circumstances, bureaucratic language is important. Let's go to this. This is what the state says. “The Department of Health and Hospitals has the primary responsibility for providing medical coordination for all of the special-needs populations, i.e. hospital and nursing home patients, persons on home health care, elderly persons and other persons with physical or mental disabilities.” Brit, I don't think you come up with a better description of the people we saw day in and day out at the Superdome and the convention center than this very population that the state's own plan said needed to be transported to a safe place and provided services.

HUME: No plan for -- and, apparently, no facility for doing that.

GARRETT: No facility for doing that. Not only that, those who reviewed the plans that the state put together before were critical of it. In 2002, the “New Orleans Times-Picayune” had a whole story about this, saying, “No one believes the evacuation plans are possible, feasible, or will be carried out.” They proved to be accurate.

HUME: It sounds as if the state will have much to answer for in the investigation coming before Congress, as well as the federal government.

GARRETT: It appears to be that.

HUME: All right. Major, thank you.

From the September 8 edition of Special Report:

HUME: Fox News has learned more tonight about what went on behind the scenes during the turmoil and suffering unleashed by Hurricane Katrina. Fox News correspondent Major Garrett has been looking into some of the questions that have been raised and found some answers.

[begin videotape]

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.

MARSHA J. “MARTY” EVANS (American Red Cross president and CEO): 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: The Superdome and convention center became what state officials call a shelter or refuge of last resort. As such, the plan was to evacuate residents, not provide services.

The Louisiana National Guard dealt with the Superdome evacuees, overwhelmed by the numbers.

COL. JACQUE THIBODEAUX (Louisiana National Guard): We had about 400 soldiers at the Superdome. And we had 30,000 New Orleans citizens evacuate to that shelter, in the span of about 24 hours after the storm.

GARRETT: The Louisiana National Guard also had to deal with the unheeded order from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for evacuees to bring three days of food and water to the Superdome.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He stated that individuals should treat this as a campout, that you should bring food and water with you. Not everyone did that. The Louisiana National Guard, not being tasked to provide that, brought in additional food and water and supported the feeding and carrying of those citizens, until they were eventually moved out of the Superdome.

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 (on-screen): 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.