In a September 10 column, Toledo Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Jack Kelly put forth numerous falsehoods and dubious statements in defense of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. Kelly's column was quickly embraced by the conservative media: On September 12, it was posted on the Drudge Report and read aloud by Rush Limbaugh on his nationally syndicated radio program.
Claim #1: Federal government couldn't have had “preposition[ed] assets” near New Orleans ready to immediately assist relief effort
Kelly sought to defend the federal government's much-criticized response to the hurricane by citing an anonymous “former Air Force logistics officer” who claimed on the weblog Molten Thought that "[y]ou cannot speed recovery and relief efforts up by prepositioning assets (in the affected areas) since the assets are endangered by the very storm which destroyed the region." Kelly then adopted the point, declaring that “Navy ships sailing from Norfolk [Naval Shipyard in Virginia] can't be on the scene immediately.”
In fact, a Navy ship -- the USS Bataan -- was “preposition[ed]” off the Louisiana coast ready to aid Katrina victims but was deprived of needed guidance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as the Chicago Tribune reported on September 4.
Moreover, the Bush administration did not send a hospital ship to New Orleans from Baltimore until four days after the levees were breached. Kelly wrote that the Army Corps of Engineers had by September 10 “begun pumping water out of New Orleans.” But James Lee Witt, FEMA director in the Clinton administration, said that both efforts should have happened much sooner: "[I]n the 1990s, in planning for a New Orleans nightmare scenario, the federal government figured it would pre-deploy nearby ships with pumps to remove water from the below-sea-level city and have hospital ships nearby."
Kelly cited a whitewash of the federal government's delayed response by Florida Army National Guardsman Jason van Steenwyk, who claimed that the “federal government pretty much met its standard time lines” in responding to the crisis.
According to the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) December 2004 National Response Plan (NRP), when responding to a catastrophic incident, the federal government should immediately begin emergency operations, even in the absence of a clear assessment of the situation. Because a “detailed and credible common operating picture may not be achievable for 24 to 48 hours (or longer) after the incident,” the NRP's "Catastrophic Annex" states that “response activities must begin without the benefit of a detailed or complete situation and critical needs assessment.”
In fact, it wasn't until 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.
Kelly also cited Steenwyk's claim that the federal response to Katrina “during the 72-96 hour” period was “unprecedented” and “faster” than all other recent storms, including Hurricane Andrew. But, as CJR Daily has noted, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., whose house was damaged by Andrew, had a different recollection in a September 9 Herald op-ed:
The day after I crawled from the wreckage of my home in 1992, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was there with water. Shortly thereafter came low-interest loans and other forms of help.
By contrast, a woman who saw me conducting interviews in Bogalusa, La., seven days after Katrina struck marched up and demanded to know if I was, finally, the man from FEMA because her house was split in two and she and her husband and children and grandchildren were sleeping on the porch.
Claim #3: “The levee broke Tuesday morning”
Kelly falsely claimed that flooding first began in New Orleans on August 30, writing that "[t]he levee broke Tuesday morning." While it is unclear exactly which levee Kelly was referring to, “major levee breaks” first occurred on “the morning of Monday, Aug. 29,” as The Wall Street Journal noted (subscription required) on September 12. The New Orleans office of the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning at 8:14 a.m. Monday, saying 'a levee breach occurred along the industrial canal at Tennessee Street,'" according to the Journal.
As Media Matters for America has documented, a weblog of the New Orleans Times-Picayune -- dated August 29, 2 p.m. CT -- noted that “City Hall confirmed a breach of the levee along the 17th Street Canal at Bellaire Drive, allowing water to spill into Lakeview.” This initial report on the Times-Picayune weblog was followed throughout the afternoon and evening of August 29 by reports of other levee breaks and massive flooding.
Claim #4: There were “roughly 2,000 municipal and school buses in New Orleans” when Katrina hit
In claiming that there were “roughly 2,000 municipal and school buses” that New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin could have used to evacuate his city before Hurricane Katrina hit, Kelly repeated a falsehood that apparently originated in a September 6 column by Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden. In fact, there were far fewer buses in New Orleans at the time of the hurricane than Kelly claimed.
According to a September 5, 2003, article in the Times-Picayune, “The [Orleans Parish school] district owns 324 buses but 70 are broken down.” In addition, a Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development profile of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA), last updated May 5, notes that RTA owned 364 public buses, bringing the total of the city's public transit and school buses to fewer than 700 (assuming the fleet of school buses has not been dramatically increased since 2003) -- far fewer than the 2,000 Kelly claimed.
A recent report by The New York Times suggests that the number of school buses in New Orleans has not dramatically increased. The Times reported on September 4 that Louisiana emergency planners believed it would take as many as 2,000 buses to evacuate the elderly and disabled residents of New Orleans in the event of a catastrophic hurricane like Katrina but that this was “far more than New Orleans possessed.”
Claim #5: National Guardsmen took time to arrive because governors of afflicted states didn't request them fast enough
Kelly erroneously suggested that another reason the federal relief effort was delayed was because "[National] Guardsmen from other states cannot be sent to a disaster area until their presence has been requested by the governors of the afflicted states."
In fact, as Media Matters has noted, according to Department of Defense officials, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had requested additional Guard personnel before the storm hit. And, as the Associated Press reported on September 3, Blanco accepted an offer for additional troops from New Mexico the day before the hurricane hit, but that help was delayed by paperwork needed from Washington.