Hyman's week-long series distorted "What really happened" in New Orleans

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

Mark Hyman's five-part series on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans used an incomplete and distorted narrative of events prior to Hurricane Katrina's August 29, 2005, landfall in order to shift responsibility for the Katrina fiasco away from the Bush administration and onto New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D).

In a five-part series on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, Sinclair Broadcast Group commentator Mark Hyman used an incomplete and distorted narrative of events prior to Hurricane Katrina's August 29, 2005, landfall in order to shift responsibility for the Katrina fiasco away from the Bush administration and onto New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). But while Hyman introduced the segment by asserting that " 'The Point' will provide documented facts the rest of the media have intentionally ignored," he provided nothing of the sort. Instead, Hyman used distortions and omissions to lay the blame for Katrina entirely on Blanco and Nagin while excusing the Bush administration. Responsibility, Hyman said, "lies not in the feds not doing the jobs that were the responsibility of the state and city. The problem is two incompetent officials [Nagin and Blanco] who allowed hundreds of their citizens to die unnecessarily."

Beyond the specific issues discussed below, the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, made up almost entirely of Republicans, issued a final report that documented many federal government failures in responding to Katrina and delivering needed relief to the area (for example, here and here).

Distortion #1: Hurricane Pam

During the series, Hyman cited the July 2004 "Hurricane Pam" exercise to show that Louisiana state and local officials knew the threat a large hurricane posed to New Orleans. However, Hyman's narrative omitted any mention that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) organized the exercise and the federal government participated fully.

In the series' introductory segment, Hyman stated that "[a]n identical storm scenario was exercised by state and city officials one year earlier. But not a single lesson from the exercise was put into effect." In the second part of the series, Hyman offered this version of "Hurricane Pam":

HYMAN: A major hurricane strikes New Orleans. Levees give way. And much of the city is left under 15 to 20 feet of water. This was not Katrina. It was Hurricane Pam. Thirteen months before Katrina, the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness exercised such a scenario featuring a hurricane as catastrophic as Katrina. State officials reconvened five months later to plan on how to evacuate the anticipated thousands left homeless. Not a single lesson from the exercise was ever put into effect.

Hyman later referenced these points during the fifth segment's conclusion.

But Hyman omitted any mention that the federal government organized "Pam," and that the planning sessions clearly envisioned that the federal government would play a significant role. Wayne Fairley, response operations branch chief of FEMA's Region 6, which includes Louisiana, noted in congressional testimony that the "Pam" exercise was part of a FEMA-funded project called the Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Planning Project. Fairley described the project, its goals, and intended results in his January 24 statement before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee:

The Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Planning Project was designed to bring together responders and decision makers from all levels of government and the American Red Cross to begin analyzing and addressing the overwhelming operational complexities that would be involved in responding to a catastrophic hurricane striking southeast Louisiana. Accepting the fact that only limited funding and time were available, topic specific "planning workshops" using a catastrophic hurricane scenario (Hurricane Pam) to frame the discussions were selected as the best approach for identifying and qualifying the scale of requirements needed to build a plan for responding to a catastrophic hurricane. The results were intended to reveal to the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (LOHSEP) and FEMA the shortfalls in existing plans and to begin developing additional plans for catastrophic hurricane response.

A January 24 New Orleans Times-Picayune article reported that "[t]he Hurricane Pam exercise was just one of the warning signals that officials at all levels of government had about the danger posed by a major hurricane hitting New Orleans." As Media Matters for America has noted, the White House received a report from FEMA and the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS), five hours before Katrina made landfall, which, based in part on the "Hurricane Pam" exercise, warned the White House about the danger to New Orleans, particularly the threat of levee failures or overtopping. Nevertheless, President Bush, on the September 1, 2005, broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America, told host Diane Sawyer, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees" that protected New Orleans from flooding.

Moreover, contrary to Hyman's suggestion that his "documented facts" had been ignored by the media, a September 9, 2005, Times-Picayune article reported on "Hurricane Pam" and its draft report: the "Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Functional Plan" -- the same report title that Hyman showed on screen while discussing "Hurricane Pam." Unlike Hyman, however, the Times-Picayune article reported the participation of federal officials. As the contractor who ran the exercise told the Times-Picayune, it "was part of FEMA's initiative for doing catastrophic disaster planning. New Orleans was picked as the first place to be studied."

Furthermore, according to a report on the website of PBS' Frontline, "The 20-day exercise was left uncompleted, however, after the Bush administration cut the project's funding." The August 6, 2004, draft "Hurricane Pam" report still has many key transportation decisions marked "TBD."

Distortion #2: Of Louisiana's 11,000 National Guard troops, "less than 3,500 were activated"

In the first segment of the series, Hyman falsely attacked Blanco for not activating "a sufficient number of National Guardsmen before the storm hit." He elaborated on his charge in the fourth segment: "By law, the president can activate Louisiana's 11,000 Army National Guardsmen only in national emergencies outside their home state. It is the governor's responsibility to activate the Guard during state emergencies. Less than 3,500 Guardsmen were activated as of the day Katrina struck." Hyman's claim misrepresented the situation at the time.

First, Hyman's claim that there were 11,000 Louisiana National Guard (LNG) troops available is false, as more than one-third of the troops were deployed overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to September 2, 2005, reports in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor.

Second, Hyman presented an incomplete picture of the LNG deployment. Although a timeline submitted by Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Landreneau, the Louisiana Adjutant General, to the Senate Homeland Security committee reported that 3,396 Louisiana National Guard troops were on duty by the time Katrina made landfall, Blanco had, in fact, activated 4,000 troops by August 27. Landreneau stated in his testimony before the committee that it was on his recommendation that Blanco activated 2,000 troops on August 26 and 2,000 more the next day as Katrina neared:

When Governor Blanco declared a state of emergency [on August 26], I recommended the activation of 2,000 National Guardsmen. This activation began the chain of events that initiated our emergency response plan and began the coordination with staff and units to implement preplanned support requirements for response operations. Although 2,000 Guardsmen were activated, thousands more were alerted to possible activation.

On August 27 at 7 a.m., all three Louisiana National Guard Joint Operation Centers were staffed at maximum levels and all units were staffed for 24 hour operations. Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) coordination began for early aviation support. Throughout the day, Louisiana National Guard forces continued to execute their missions in accordance with our existing support plans to include providing 160 soldiers to support Louisiana State Police contra flow evacuation.

I moved to the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge to continue coordination efforts. As we gathered more information on the strengthing storm, I recommended to Governor Blanco we activate an additional 2,000 National Guardsmen. Never before in Louisiana's history had so many National Guardsmen been called up before a hurricane.

Landreneau also stated in his testimony that "[b]y Tuesday [August 30, the day after Katrina struck], the Louisiana National Guard had every resource committed. We had no reserves." Landreneau's timeline stated that 5,207 National Guard troops were deployed in Louisiana by the end of August 30.

Moreover, as Media Matters noted when Fox News host Bill O'Reilly made a claim similar to Hyman's, Department of Defense officials have stated that Blanco and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) requested additional Guard personnel two days before Katrina hit.

Distortion #3: "For Blanco it was money first, citizens' safety later"

Hyman also falsely defended President Bush while distorting the pre-Katrina record in order to suggest that Blanco was concerned only with getting federal money while Katrina headed toward New Orleans. On the first day of the series, Hyman asserted that "President Bush immediately declared a state of emergency after Blanco requested it" and that "Blanco's two letters to Bush dwelled on federal money, not evacuation or other pre-storm measures." On day four, Hyman elaborated on this charge:

HYMAN: Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco sent this letter to President Bush two days before Katrina struck. She announced state officials would be supporting local evacuations. She did not request federal assistance in evacuating citizens. Bush immediately declared a state of emergency to activate federal agencies.

Blanco sent two letters just before Katrina struck requesting a total of $139 million in federal monies. For Blanco it was money first, citizens' safety later.

Hyman appears to be referring to two letters Blanco sent to Bush as part of the legal process of obtaining disaster relief as soon as possible. His suggestion that Blanco was concerned only about the money rather than "citizens' safety" is baseless: The requests were, in fact, estimates of federal disaster assistance required by law.

Under the federal Stafford Act, there are two types of declarations: a "state of emergency," which allows for limited federal aid and cost-sharing, and the more serious "major disaster area" designation, for when state and local government resources are overwhelmed by a disaster. The major disaster declaration allows for greater federal assistance and an expanded role for federal aid and agencies. A major disaster must be declared for the Department of Defense to be legally brought in to help the state.

Federal law requires that, in order for the president to declare a federal state of emergency in a given region, "The Governor shall furnish information describing the State and local efforts and resources which have been or will be used to alleviate the emergency, and will define the type and extent of Federal aid required. Based upon such Governor's request, the President may declare that an emergency exists." A major disaster declaration has similar requirements.

The letters Hyman attacked were Blanco's August 27 request for a state of emergency declaration, and her August 28 request for a major disaster declaration. Anticipating a "non-direct" landfall, the former estimated that its coverable costs would be $9 million. The request was granted the same day; although, the president's declaration inexplicably did not cover the southern and eastern parts of the state, including New Orleans, which Blanco had requested in her letter. (This oversight was corrected on August 29, the day Katrina struck.)

Blanco's major disaster declaration request anticipated a "direct landfall," and, based on previous Gulf Coast hurricanes, estimated that disaster relief efforts would cost $130 million. Blanco requested "direct federal assistance for work and services to save life and property." Her request was granted the next day, August 29.

These steps, and the cost estimates Blanco provided, were necessary to obtain federal disaster assistance -- both in money and aid.

Hyman's five part series on "New Orleans -- What Really Happened":

HYMAN: Hurricane Katrina is still a political football. In the next four days, "The Point" will provide documented facts the rest of the media have intentionally ignored.

The New Orleans emergency guide forecasted "most levees in southeast Louisiana would be overtopped from the storm surge generated by direct strike by a major hurricane. The result would be widespread flooding." The state predicted the same outcome. Yet, we have Mayor Ray Nagin on tape intentionally delaying an evacuation order.

Governor Kathleen Blanco failed to activate a sufficient number of National Guardsmen before the storm hit. Neither the state nor the city properly implemented their emergency and evacuation plans.

An identical storm scenario was exercised by state and city officials one year earlier. But not a single lesson from the exercise was put into effect.

President Bush immediately declared a state of emergency after Blanco requested it. Blanco's two letters to Bush dwelled on federal money, not evacuation or other pre-storm measures.

Tomorrow, how the city failed.

And that's "The Point."

HYMAN: A major hurricane strikes New Orleans. Levees give way. And much of the city is left under 15-20 feet of water.

This was not Katrina. It was Hurricane Pam. Thirteen months before Katrina, the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness exercised such a scenario featuring a hurricane as catastrophic as Katrina. State officials reconvened five months later to plan on how evacuate the anticipated thousands left homeless.

Not a single lesson from the exercise was ever put into effect. Major steps from the emergency plans for both Louisiana and New Orleans were never followed before and after Katrina struck. The city plan called for a 72-hour evacuation notice procedure for a Category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 5 three days before it struck. Mayor Ray Nagin intentionally delayed an evacuation order until just hours before Katrina struck. Hundreds of buses and city vehicles sat idle, contradicting evacuation guidelines. Thousands of residents were left trapped in the city. Nearly 1,000 died as a result.

Tomorrow, hear Ray Nagin, in his own words, delay the evacuation order.

And that's "The Point."

HYMAN: New Orleans' emergency procedures called for an evacuation to be ordered three days in advance of a Category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 5 more than three days before Katrina hit landfall. A secret recording of Mayor Ray Nagin's comments on Saturday, August 27th, two days before Katrina struck is revealing:

NAGIN [audio clip]: I'm very concerned right now because if the governor and [Jefferson Parish President] Aaron Broussard and Ray Nagin go out at noon and start talking about evacuation, we are going to alert almost a million people to hit the road.

HYMAN: State and local officials and not the federal government are responsible for ordering evacuations. Yet, Nagin delayed an evacuation order until it was too late. Had he ordered one sooner and included hotel guests, then a larger abundance of safe refuge would have been available for those left behind in addition to the Superdome. Nagin finally announced an evacuation just hours before Katrina hit the city, when it was too late for area residents to flee. Nearly 1,000 people died.

Tomorrow, Governor Blanco put money ahead of safety.

And that's "The Point."

HYMAN: Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco sent this letter to President Bush two days before Katrina struck. She announced state officials would be supporting local evacuations. She did not request federal assistance in evacuating citizens. Bush immediately declared a state of emergency to activate federal agencies.

Blanco sent two letters just before Katrina struck requesting a total of $139 million in federal monies. For Blanco it was money first, citizens' safety later.

The state plan called for nearly one-half million vehicles to evacuate the entire southeastern Louisiana region for a Category 5 hurricane. A mix of private and public vehicles. Blanco's administration didn't activate the vehicle plan.

By law, the president can activate Louisiana's 11,000 Army National Guardsmen only in national emergencies outside their home state. It is the governor's responsibility to activate the Guard during state emergencies. Less than 3,500 Guardsmen were activated as of the day Katrina struck.

Nearly 1,000 people who were left behind died.

And that's "The Point."

HYMAN: In the previous four days, I've documented how Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ignored their citizens leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Their incompetence contributed to the deaths of 1,000 people.

Much of the media pretend these state and city emergency and evacuation plans don't exist. New Orleans altered its plans after Katrina, but not before we got a copy. The state and city exercised a hurricane scenario identical to Katrina one year earlier. But they failed to implement any lessons.

State and city officials knew that a hurricane of Katrina's magnitude would likely cause widespread flooding. Nagin did not follow evacuation guidelines and intentionally delayed an evacuation order.

The New Orleans mayor was responsible for ordering that evacuation. A state of emergency was immediately declared upon Blanco's request. The problem lies not in the feds not doing the jobs that were the responsibility of the state and city. The problem is two incompetent officials who allowed hundreds of their citizens to die unnecessarily. And the media absolutely knows better.

And that's "The Point."

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National Security & Foreign Policy
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Mark Hyman
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