On September 11, ABC host George Stephanopoulos repeated a falsehood that had reverberated through the right-wing media the preceding week -- that “there were 2,000 buses under water” that New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin could have used to evacuate his city before Hurricane Katrina's arrival. The claim appears to have originated in a September 6 column by Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden, who inaccurately charged that, although Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation before the hurricane's arrival, he “kept the city's 2,000 school buses parked and locked in neat rows when there was still time to take the refugees to higher ground.” Conservative websites, including the Power Line and Little Green Footballs weblogs, quickly linked to Pruden's column.
But Pruden dramatically overstated the number of New Orleans school buses. As of 2003, the most recent year for which data appears to be available, the Orleans Parish school district, which operates New Orleans' public schools, owned only 324 school buses. 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 Pruden claimed. Even so, Pruden's claim was repeated that evening on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes by co-host Sean Hannity, who insisted, “Two thousand buses sat; 2,000 school buses.” The falsehood was echoed the next day by Fox news political analyst and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who baselessly suggested that the city owned more than enough buses to help every poor person leave the city. And In a September 11 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column, national security writer Jack Kelly asked, "[W]hy weren't the roughly 2,000 municipal and school buses in New Orleans utilized to take people out of the city before Katrina struck?"
During a roundtable discussion on the September 11 broadcast of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, which included Gingrich, Stephanopoulos repeated Pruden's faulty figure. After Gingrich asserted that “it's the mayor who fails to use the city buses to move the poor out of New Orleans,” Stephanopoulos responded, “He says that was never part of the plan, but you're right, there were 2,000 buses under water.” Gingrich replied, “That's right.”
In fact, The New York Times reported on September 4 that Louisiana emergency planners believed it would take as many as 2,000 buses “to evacuate an estimated 100,000 elderly and disabled people” in the event of a catastrophic hurricane like Katrina. But, The New York Times wrote, this was “far more than New Orleans possessed.”
Pruden's claim that the city possessed 2,000 school buses that could have been used for a pre-storm evacuation appears to be an exaggeration of a September 1 Associated Press photograph of school buses parked in a flooded lot in New Orleans. The photograph was widely reported on conservative websites, including the Media Research Center's NewsBusters weblog, the Instapundit weblog, and Michelle Malkin's weblog. A September 6 MSNBC.com article that described the scene in the AP photograph noted, “Some 200 New Orleans school buses sit underwater in a parking lot, unused. That's enough to have evacuated at least 13,000 people.”
Apparently, those school buses constituted the majority of New Orleans' school bus fleet. According to a September 5, 2003, article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “The [Orleans Parish school] district owns 324 buses but 70 are broken down.” A 2003 document posted on the Louisiana Department of Education's website confirms that Orleans Parish used 324 “board owned” school buses and no “contractor owned” school buses.
On the September 7 edition of Hannity & Colmes, Gingrich echoed Pruden's inaccurate claim, falsely asserting that the city possessed “more than enough buses to, in a methodical, orderly way, help every poor person leave the city.”
But Gingrich's claim has no basis in fact. While estimates of the number of residents stranded in New Orleans following the storm vary, New Orleans officials have suggested that 80 percent of the city's residents evacuated before the hurricane hit. That leaves roughly 97,000 residents who remained in New Orleans.
New Orleans' combined fleet of public transit and school buses would not have had nearly enough capacity to evacuate all of those who remained in the city. A July 8 Times-Picayune article, titled "RTA buses would be used for evacuation; But plan still falls far short of needs," pointed out that the RTA owned 364 public buses. “Even if the entire fleet was used,” the Times-Picayune noted, “the buses would carry only about 22,000 people out of the city -- far short of the 134,000 people estimated to be without cars in a recent University of New Orleans study.” Even the addition of the full school bus fleet would have been far from sufficient to transport the remaining residents.
Moreover, The New York Times noted that a number of New Orleans buses were in use as the hurricane approached: “But Chester Wilmot, an L.S.U. [Louisiana State University] civil engineering professor who studies evacuation plans, said the city successfully improvised. He said witnesses described seeing city buses shuttle residents to the Superdome before Hurricane Katrina struck.”
From the September 11 edition of This Week with George Stephanopoulos:
GINGRICH: Part of the point of my message is, we've now had the most vivid proof you could ask for that the current systems of government -- the city system -- failed. Remember, it's the mayor who fails to use the city buses to move the poor out of New Orleans. So all this talk about George W. Bush --
STEPHANOPOULOS: He says that was never part of the plan, but you're right, there were 2,000 buses under water.
GINGRICH: That's right. OK. So I'm just saying, that -- let's get clear: The state failed, and the federal government failed.
From the September 6 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:
HANNITY: You would have thought that the 2,000 buses, school buses, that sat in the yards would have been used to help those people that were incapable of getting out on their own, but none of that had happened locally.
GERALDO RIVERA (Fox News host): It's prophetic. It's apocalyptic. On my show Sunday night before the storm hit, I said it was going to be of biblical proportions. I interviewed the mayor, Nagin, and I said, “How does it feel about being the mayor during this -- history will look back on the destruction of your city if this happens. And it looks like it's happening, Mr. Mayor.”
And he said, “Everybody has landmarks in life, things you want to be remembered for. If this is my destiny, this is my destiny.” It was just -- it was pathetic and what happened to him, the disintegration --
HANNITY: But he didn't evacuate them, Geraldo.
RIVERA: You know, Alan [sic], I'm telling you, you have to put in the context of this is a guy -- half the National Guard is in Iraq. You can't -- I heard [Defense] Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld --
HANNITY: Two thousand buses sat there; 2,000 school buses, Geraldo.
From the September 7 edition of Hannity & Colmes:
GINGRICH: But -- but let me just make two points to you, Alan. First of all, to the degree people were failed, they were failed by a city government that did not have and execute a plan to use the city buses, which existed, to help people get out. So this wasn't some magic moment. This wasn't somebody's picking just on the poor. This was a failure of city government on a grand scale.
ALAN COLMES (co-host): Maybe he [Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean] is blaming the city, not the feds.
GINGRICH: But second, notice, Alan, you can take exactly your same analysis and apply it to the Gulf Coast, and the people whose homes were most likely to be destroyed were relatively wealthy people who lived on the coast. So are you saying that along the coastline, if you were relatively wealthy and had a house along the coast, you were somehow being punished? In New Orleans, if you were poor and happened to be in a poor area, you're somehow -- I just think that's a grotesque way to think about it.
COLMES: You're being punished if you don't have a car. There's economic disadvantage. And he's not saying -- he's not saying it's because -- it's not intentional. He's not accusing anybody of intentionally hurting African-Americans. He's simply saying those are the facts. That's what happened here.
GINGRICH: No. The fact -- the fact is there were more than enough buses to, in a methodical, orderly way, help every poor person in New Orleans leave the city. And the mayor and the city failed to use the buses that existed and failed to help people in an orderly way. Now that's a -- let's be straight about this. This was a failure of city government, a failure of state government and, in my judgment, a failure of federal government. And it had consequences for people.