On September 6 and 7, numerous national media outlets featured G. Robert "Bob" Williams, president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, falsely criticizing Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin -- both Democrats -- for their handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. But none of these media outlets disclosed that the Evergreen Freedom Foundation is a conservative think tank that espouses "limited, accountable government" and receives funding from numerous conservative donors. Nor did they make clear how Williams, who was a Washington state legislator during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, is qualified to comment on hurricane disaster relief efforts.
Williams's media tour appears to have been launched by a September 6 Wall Street Journal op-ed. He also was featured on the September 6 editions of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, ABC's World News Tonight, and Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, as well as the September 7 edition of MSNBC's Connected: Coast to Coast.
On his guest appearances on The O'Reilly Factor and Connected: Coast to Coast, Williams claimed that Blanco was largely to blame for the slow government response to Katrina's devastation, because "the feds can't come in" to provide disaster relief unless requested by the governor. This is false; in fact, the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan clearly states that the federal government may take a "proactive" response to a catastrophe and bypass state requests for aid. Normally, it is a governor's responsibility to request federal aid in the event of an emergency. But under a "proactive" response, "[s]tandard procedures regarding requests for assistance may be expedited or, under extreme circumstances, suspended in the immediate aftermath of an event of catastrophic magnitude." Moreover, Blanco requested federal aid three days before Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reprinted Blanco's August 27 request to Bush to declare a state of emergency in Louisiana and to provide "supplementary Federal assistance." Further, the White House had already authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist with the hurricane emergency. According to an August 26 White House statement, FEMA was authorized "to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency."
In his Journal op-ed and his appearances on The O'Reilly Factor and Connected, Williams claimed that, "sadly, it apparently took a personal call from the president to urge the governor to order the mandatory evacuation." But news reports indicate that Bush -- in an effort to ensure such a precaution was being taken --called Blanco "shortly before" the press conference at which the evacuation was announced -- casting doubt on Williams's claim that Bush's phone call precipitated the announcement. Lou Dobbs Tonight and World News Tonight featured brief videotaped segments of Williams criticizing New Orleans' evacuation plans.
None of these media outlets noted that the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, which purports to "advance individual liberty, free enterprise and limited, accountable government," is a conservative group that receives funding from conservative grant-making organizations such as the Scaife Foundations and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
Nor did they make clear exactly how Williams is qualified to comment on hurricane disaster relief. According to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation website: "Our primary research areas are budget and taxes, education, health care, welfare, and citizenship and governance." Williams's biography on the site states that he "is known as a budget and tax expert in the state and is frequently consulted for advice on fiscal and tax policies."
ABC News correspondent Dan Harris noted that Williams "dealt with emergency response issues after the eruption of Mount St. Helens," while Fox News identified Williams as a "Frmr. State Legislator in Mt. St. Helens Area." But the Mount St. Helens eruption (which occurred 25 years ago) and Hurricane Katrina are notably dissimilar -- specifically in their respective impacts and the amount of warning and preparation time preceding them. The eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, killed 57 people and was foreshadowed by two months of unusual seismic activity and an emergency declaration on March 31. According to census figures, Skamania County, where the volcano is located, had a population of 7,919 in 1980.* By contrast, Blanco declared a state of emergency on August 26, noting that "Hurricane Katrina poses an imminent threat to the state of Louisiana." That same day, the National Weather Service predicted that there was a 17 percent chance Katrina would strike New Orleans by August 29. According to the most recent census figures, New Orleans' population in July 2004 was 462,269.
Correction: As a state representative, Williams's district encompassed portions of Cowlitz County, Washington, which was also affected by the eruption of Mount St. Helens. According to census figures, Cowlitz County had a population of 79,548 in 1980. Thanks to reader J.D. for pointing this out.