CNN's Kyra Phillips allowed Katrina survivor Rockey Vaccarella to repeatedly praise or deflect blame from President Bush over his handling of Hurricane Katrina, yet failed to note that Vaccarella once ran for local office as a Republican. Phillips also failed to challenge Vaccarella's various attempts to excuse the federal government's slow response.
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On the August 23 edition of CNN's Live From..., host Kyra Phillips allowed Katrina survivor Rockey Vaccarella to repeatedly praise or deflect blame from President Bush over his handling of Hurricane Katrina, yet failed to note that Vaccarella once ran for local office as a Republican or challenge Vaccarella's various attempts to excuse the federal government's slow response. As Philadelphia Daily News senior writer Will Bunch has reported, Vaccarella ran in 1999 for the St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, commission as a Republican, according to a October 15, 1999, candidate profile in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. While Phillips noted that Vaccarella "ran for office in the past in St. Bernard Parish," she failed to mention his party affiliation. Later, on The Situation Room, CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux did note his Republican Party affiliation while reporting that the White House denied having known it.
Vaccarella -- who, as Bunch reported, was listed in his 1999 candidate profile as director of operations for a company that operated 31 Pizza Hut restaurants -- towed a "mock but realistic-looking" version of the trailer issued to him and his family after the hurricane by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from Louisiana to Washington with the intention of cooking a meal of "shrimp and redfish and other good food" for Bush inside the trailer. According to the Times-Picayune, Vaccarella instead met with the president in a private session.
Live From... did not provide a similar platform for any Katrina victims who are critical of the Bush administration's response to the storm. However, during a report by White House correspondent Ed Henry on Vaccarella's visit, Henry noted that Bush's popularity had taken a hit due to the "slow response" to Katrina. Also, during Henry's report, Phillips noted a new CNN poll that found that 56 percent of Americans think the federal government has not done enough for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Reacting to that poll, Henry stated that "there's a challenge for the president in those poll numbers. A lot of people obviously still feeling like he has not done enough. ... And I think, as well there are a lot of people concerned they [Katrina victims] still haven't gotten that help."
Throughout the segment, Vaccarella praised Bush for his response to Katrina, and echoed the White House's concerted effort to pin blame for the tragedy on local officials. For instance, Vaccarella said he wished "the president could have another term in Washington"; suggested that those who condemn the president for his response to the Katrina disaster lack his "glass-half-full" and "optimistic-type personality"; said people should thank the president for the FEMA trailers and realize he "can't just snap his fingers and make it happen"; and pledged that people affected by the disaster "should start seeing a lot more things happening from the federal government" soon.
Vaccarella also highlighted state issues with buses, while ignoring the federal government's numerous reported failings:
VACCARELLA: You know, we always said down South we were going to get the big one, we're going to get the big one. Well, we got the big one. But unfortunately, we wasn't prepared. I actually went around with a camera, Steve Scafidi and I got together, we were making this documentary. You can go to our website, thepeoplesstory.com, and over 150 school buses were under water. Over 28, I think, police cars just in one area was under water. That's me on the roof right there in the middle of the storm. You know what, if I was in charge, what I would have done was, hey, let's take all of our school buses, our transit buses, and move 'em up north. Let's take boats and move 'em up north. So when the hurricane passes through, we can get down here very quick and react and we don't have to wait four or five days for the federal government to come down and bail us out.
During his report, Henry remarked that "Hollywood couldn't have scripted this any better: A gritty guy named Rockey, slugging it out, trying to realize his dream, and getting that dream realized against all odds." Comparing Vaccarelli to famed movie boxer Rocky Balboa, Henry concluded: "It did sound like a movie, a happy ending for Rockey." Phillips ended the segment by thanking Vacarella and his wife and family for appearing, saying "What a wonderful segment." Later, on The Situation Room, Malveaux asserted that "Rockey's visit now offered the president a much-needed boost."
From the 1 p.m. EDT edition of CNN's Live From...:
PHILLIPS: Well, a plain-spoken guy had coffee and a chat with the president today. No, not Ed Henry, though he's a plain-spoken guy too. Ed's our White House correspondent. He's gonna tell us though what exactly happened. Do you think Rockey would have ever imagined that he would have been face-to-face with the president?
HENRY: No, I mean Hollywood couldn't have scripted this any better: A gritty guy named Rockey, slugging it out, trying to realize his dream, and getting that dream realized against all odds. Wait, actually I think Hollywood did script that. In fact, Rockey Vaccarella, not Rocky Balboa, came out to the cameras here at the White House, and told reporters at one point, sent a shout out to his wife, "Hey, yo, Carolyn, we did it." It did sound like a movie, a happy ending for Rockey. He's even making a movie himself chronicling his trip. He basically took a FEMA-style trailer down from New Orleans, up here to Washington, trying to get this meeting with the president. What he says he wanted to do is basically highlight the problems that still exist down there. But he's also traveling to praise President Bush and the help that the federal government has already given. And that may help explain why, while the White House initially told us the president's schedule was full yesterday -- as it was, he was traveling in Minnesota, he couldn't have dinner with Rockey -- they did find time this morning for them to meet in the Oval Office and then come out to the South Lawn. Take a listen.
[begin video clip]
BUSH: Rockey lost everything. He lost -- he and his family had every possession they had wiped out. And it's the time to remember that people suffered. And it's a time to recommit ourselves to helping them.
VACCARELLA: I just don't want the government and President Bush to forget about us. And I just wish the president could have another term in Washington --
BUSH: Wait a minute.
VACCARELLA: You know? I wish he had another four years, man.
[end video clip]
HENRY: So, four more years, a refrain the president hasn't been hearing lately, in part because of the war in Iraq, but also that unpopularity, the slide he's had, starting, really, with Hurricane Katrina a year ago, the slow response. I asked Rockey, though, about the fact that he lost his job and his home. But he has his praise for the president. Others down in New Orleans don't have that same praise. And he basically said he thinks it's because he sees the glass half-full, Kyra.
PHILLIPS: And, Ed, we're just getting these new poll numbers in. I mean, while we see Rockey there praising the president, obviously a Katrina victim that lost everything, like you said, 56 percent of the people still think the federal government is not doing enough. And we're going to really hammer home on what people are still wanting from the government coming up a little later in this half-hour. But, Ed, meanwhile, the president -- I'm assuming he's getting ready to mark the first anniversary of Katrina. It will be interesting to see what he says and what he does.
HENRY: Absolutely. I mean, and there's a challenge for the president in those poll numbers. A lot of people obviously still feeling like he has not done enough, and perhaps the White House could have been concerned about another Cindy Sheehan kind of issue, public relations problem if they had not met with Rockey. They obviously dealt with this one. And I think, as well there are a lot of people concerned they still haven't gotten that help. What we're going to see the president do next week is go down to New Orleans and Mississippi himself. We just found out today as well, in the next few days, the president is going to sign a proclamation declaring that next Tuesday will be a day of national remembrance. He wants to recognize those who lost their lives but also the heroes who helped more loss of life down in New Orleans, Mississippi, et cetera, Kyra.
PHILLIPS: Ed Henry, at the White House, thanks, Ed.
HENRY: Thank you.
PHILLIPS: Now, the man of the hour himself, live, Rockey Vaccarella on the White House lawn, not far from our Ed Henry there, Rockey -- or actually, no, you're back at the bureau.
PHILLIPS: How was -- how was the meeting? Did you ever think it could happen?
VACCARELLA: Yeah, I do. You know, like the gentleman just said, always look at the glass half-full and not half-empty. I'm an optimistic-type person. The president's a people person. Of course, the president's plate is loaded down with things. You've just seen a journalist being kidnapped and stuff. So, you know, the odds was against me that I would get there and meet with the president. But, you know what? We still packed up and we said, "We going to the White House. And we're going to make enough -- enough positive noise and take the high road and meet with the president."
PHILLIPS: So, why did you do it?
VACCARELLA: Well, I did it because -- for one, I wanted to thank the president for giving thousands of people, like myself, a roof over our heads. You got to realize, when Hurricane Katrina came through, she came through and she took a lot of homes away. People could be sleeping on streets right now. People are giving our president a hard time on the response time and all of that. But, you know, he can't just snap his fingers and make it happen. So, he sent thousands and thousands of trailers down there that we living in. We kind of set our mind that we on an extended camping trip. I have air conditioning. I have running water. I can take a shower while we do the rebuilding that needs to be done.
PHILLIPS: But at the same time, a lot of people, Rockey, in New Orleans, are taking a much different approach to what you're saying, and saying, "Look, where is the money? I mean, there is still billions of dollars yet to be distributed. And where's our money? Why aren't we getting it? Why am I still living in a trailer a year later?" I mean, a lot of people are in a different position -- or at least a different mindset than you. What about those folks?
VACCARELLA: You know what? That was one of the conversations the president and I had. Where is the money? And the president is confident that he wanted the money to go down to the local people, the local politicians, and have them do more of the funding. I think he signed off on a bill of a billion dollars. There was a national record on how much money he's already tooken [sic] down south to help rebuild the area. So, yes, that was a concern of mine and that was a concern I addressed with the president. And the president had just appointed chairman [Gulf Coast recovery coordinator Donald] Powell to oversee the financial distribution of the money that's gonna go down to help actually rebuild it. And they said that this week we should start seeing a lot more things happening from the federal government.
PHILLIPS: Rockey, what's your house like now? Are you still getting federal funds? Are you getting money from the local government or the state government? And how much longer until your house is up and running?
VACCARELLA: No, ma'am, I'm not. I got -- after the storm came through, I think I got a check for $2,000 four weeks after the storm that FEMA gave us to put us back on our feet and got -- you know, gave us an apartment to rent. And then I got another $2,300, and that was it. And then we got our insurance money. And that was one of the main things the president and I addressed, was the insurance and the mortgages. I felt like the mortgage companies -- you know what, they got paid. They -- you know, if -- let's work at some easy numbers for example. If somebody had $100,000 mortgage and they only had $80,000 of insurance, well, they owe the mortgage company $20,000. I don't think that's fair. And the president agreed with me on that. And that's one thing he's going to address. Some people are upside down. Myself in particular, I had enough in flood insurance to rebuild. But you know what? I'm out of a job now because Hurricane Katrina washed away all of corporate America down that way, kind of pulled out. It's been a year later, and we don't even have a McDonald's in our area.
PHILLIPS: Well, Rockey, I know that you ran for office in the past in St. Bernard Parish. It sounds like you should be doing that now. If you've got this energy and this type of direction, and you have a way of getting things done -- you made it all the way to Washington, you got in front of the president -- why not start doing something right there in your community and making decisions for you and the people?
VACCARELLA: Well, you know, I went through some tragedy and I'm not scared to talk about it. I lost a 19-year old son, Rockey Jr. I have another son, Luke Vacarella, he's my youngest. And I did run for council office and I lost by minimal votes of 43. But that's all right. I had a plan of my own. You know, we always said down South we were going to get the big one, we're going to get the big one. Well, we got the big one. But unfortunately, we wasn't prepared. I actually went around with a camera, Steve Scafidi and I got together, we were making this documentary. You can go to our website, thepeoplesstory.com, and over 150 school buses were under water. Over 28, I think, police cars just in one area was under water. That's me on the roof right there in the middle of the storm. You know what, if I was in charge, what I would have done was, hey, let's take all of our school buses, our transit buses, and move 'em up north. Let's take boats and move 'em up north so when the hurricane passes through, we can get down here very quick and react and we don't have to wait four or five days for the federal government to come down and bail us out.
PHILLIPS: Rockey, I want you to stay with me. We've got a little something for you here.
PHILLIPS: Rockey and his family made their home in St. Bernard Parish before Katrina, as we've been talking about. And they live there today in a FEMA trailer parked right there on their front lawn. Our Gulf Coast correspondent Susan Roesgen is actually in Rockey's neighborhood. Susan, I understand you've had some time to spend with the family there, as I have had the chance to talk to Rockey.
ROESGEN: I have indeed, Kyra. You know, we did some checking; the square footage of the White House is 55,000 square feet. The square footage of an average FEMA trailer is 265 square feet. So President Bush would learn a lot if he were to have had dinner with Rockey on the White House lawn there. This is his wife, Carolyn. His son, Luke, who was rescued with him off the roof of their house. Carolyn, what would you like the president to know about life in a FEMA trailer?
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: That it's not so bad. It's OK. You know, you manage.
ROESGEN: Now, you have one bed in the back for you and Rockey.
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: One bedroom, yes.
ROESGEN: And this --
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: And this opens up into a bed for our son Luke.
ROESGEN: And then you have one bathroom?
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: One bathroom, yes.
ROESGEN: And it's a good thing you have a Chihuahua and not a St. Bernard.
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: And not a Saint Bernard, you're right.
ROESGEN: What do you think of your president -- your husband today, actually talking to the president at the White House? I think he kind of hijacked the president at one point too and just took over.
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: He's the man. He's the man. I think this is wonderful. I am so proud of my husband right now. Very, very proud.
ROCKEY VACCARELLA: Hey, honey.
ROESGEN: Did you really think you would be able to meet the president?
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: Yes, I did. I did.
ROESGEN: He's talking to you right now.
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: Yes, he is.
ROESGEN: I have talked to some of your neighbors here -- Kyra, I've got to tell you, some of the neighbors say that fewer than half of them have come back. Why did you decide to come back when you know so many of your friends and neighbors aren't coming back? Why rebuild?
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: This is home. This is home. This is where my heart is. And I wanted to come home, even though I knew we would be living in this little trailer. But as long as I had my washer and dryer running in that house, I was OK.
ROESGEN: What if somebody, in someplace else in the country says, "Why would you come back? It's dangerous. The levees could fail again or you could have another huge storm surge and wipe you out again."
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: Well, this is home, again. This is where I want to be. And if we're threatened with another hurricane, we'll just pack up, load up, and we're gonna evacuate. And Rockey and Luke are coming this time. No ands, ifs, or buts about it.
ROESGEN: Kyra, I have to tell you that Carolyn evacuated to Panama City. She said she begged her husband and her son to leave with her. They didn't. You didn't know where they were for a while. But this is what you see, Kyra, you see some people who say, "This is it; I'm moving out; I'm not going to stay," and you see others who have waited for a FEMA trailer have found one and are actually rebuilding. Kyra.
PHILLIPS: Well, Susan, Carolyn and Luke, stay with us. Rockey, I know you're patched in, you heard this whole conversation. Why didn't you listen to your wife when she begged you not to leave?
ROCKEY VACCARELLA: Well, you know, I rode my bike -- I was born and raised right there for 41 years. I rode my bike on that levee. I fished off the levee. I thought the levee was the Great Wall of China. And you know what? We were under the impression that as long as we were inside the levee protection system that we were going to be safe. Now, the hurricane came through with some powerful winds. It didn't knock down our homes. Our homes are built very sturdy. What happened was the levee broke, somehow, and I have my own opinion about that, and the water actually came in and filled it up with 20 feet. So, you know, we don't live by -- "if it could, if it should, if it would." You know, that is our home. When we want to go on vacation, we're ready to come back home, we go back to St. Bernard. We could get hit with another hurricane this year, you're right, but, you know what, we might not get not hit in that area ever again. So, we're born and raised right there. We're not going anywhere.
PHILLIPS: Carolyn, your husband's strong-headed. Do you ever get into it with him? Do you ever disagree with him?
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: Yes, we do. And I disagree a lot with him. But yes next --
PHILLIPS: Well, what do you think about what he's doing and what he had to say --
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: This is great. It is wonderful. And I'm very, very proud of him.
PHILLIPS: And, Susan, you have lived in this city for years, you've never wanted to leave this city, even during Katrina. When you sit down with families like Rockey and Carolyn and Luke, do you think this is the norm or is this a unique family?
ROESGEN: I think it's more or less the norm -- something just fell off the wall, Kyra. It was like the lighter, the butane lighter for the little small stove.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, Rockey, see, I don't think these FEMA trailers are everything you've -- they're cracked up to be now, Rockey.
ROESGEN: Yeah. Now Rockey's got to get back here and fix that.
PHILLIPS: I'm sorry, Susan, go ahead.
ROESGEN: You know, Kyra -- no, I admire Carolyn, I admire Rockey. I live in a house that was in the 20 percent of New Orleans that did not flood. So I don't know what it would be like for me personally to wake up every day in unfamiliar surroundings, not with the things that I was used to. I don't know what it would be like to see my house under 12 feet of water. So I admire people like this. And if there's anybody that's going to repopulate this area, it's the people like Carolyn and Rockey and their son Luke, because other folks don't have the heart for it anymore. And that's sad to see, but I'm afraid it's a reality here, Kyra.
PHILLIPS: Carolyn, it does come down to the strength of all of you as a family and the passion you have for this city and not wanting to go, right?
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: That's correct. That's correct.
PHILLIPS: So how do you keep it? How do you keep that alive, considering the circumstances? It's amazing that you sit in the trailer and say, "Look this is what we've been handed, it's all right."
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: Well, this is it. This is what -- you know this is what we do. You know, my -- you know, we -- I work for the St. Bernard parish school board, I'm a 4-year-old pre-k assistant there. And, you know, that is part of the reason why I wanted to come back. I wanted to be back here. When I heard that St. Bernard was opening up the schools, I'm like, I have to go home. I need to come home. This is where I need to be. This is where I want to be. This is home.
PHILLIPS: Rockey, I understand you have --
ROESGEN: But Kyra --
PHILLIPS: Yeah, go ahead, Susie.
ROESGEN: I was just going to say, Kyra, I think we should never forget that a lot of people who want to come home can't come home. You have two businesspeople. Rockey has the restaurant business here in St. Bernard parish. Carolyn again working for the St. Bernard parish school board. People who had the means to come home are home. Many people simply didn't have the money at all. New Orleans is a very poor city. And a lot of people in New Orleans itself won't possibly ever be able to come home because they just don't have any way to make it happen.
PHILLIPS: That's a point well made Rockey, and did you talk with the president about that? I mean, it is very much a divided city economically. We saw what happened when Katrina hit and we're seeing who's able to survive in New Orleans now. And who can't come back, just like Susan said.
ROCKEY VACCARELLA: Well, that was the thing I addressed with the president. And, you know, my main focus was, you know, Mr. Bush, I wish that the money that's allocated down south to rebuild our area and rebuild the neighborhoods where people can come back, that was totally devastated, that the money actually gets into the people's hands. And that's what I say, again, him and Chairman Powell and they're gonna be looking at all the money going down south with a fine-tooth comb and they're going to be scrutinize it. I think this is going to be going down in history as the government watching money so close.
PHILLIPS: As we wrap it up, Rockey, you want to tell your wife and son what you're bringing back from the White House?
ROCKEY VACCARELLA: Hey, honey, I got you a bookmarker and some pens and, Luke, I got you some ties and stuff. I got my granddaughter Alex great stuff. I've met with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush --
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: Ooo, Wow.
ROCKEY VACCARELLA: And it was really a great thing. But I like to say to that little guy I see sitting next to my wife right there, he's nice and quiet, he ain't saying nothing, I was there to protect him and he became the protector of me. He went out the window, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me on the roof. So, I thank him for saving my life.
PHILLIPS: Well, Rockey, he is not saying anything because he isn't mic'ed up, unfortunately we were short a mic. But believe me, I know your son would speak up if he could and I know he's a complete hero for what he did for your family. Rockey, Carolyn, Luke, Susan, all of you, thank you so much. What a wonderful segment.
ROCKEY VACCARELLA: Hey, thank you.
PHILLIPS: Appreciate it.
CAROLYN VACCARELLA: Thank you so much.
From the August 23 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
MALVEAUX: Rockey's visit was certainly not the treatment the so-called peace mom, Cindy Sheehan got, when she camped outside the president's ranch last summer demanding a face-to-face with Mr. Bush. She was a sharp critic of the war in Iraq.
SHEEHAN: Here's my ID. I'd like to go see the president, please.
MALVEAUX: While the president refused to meet with her, her profile and entourage grew. The White House's approach then, some aides believe, backfired. But Rockey's visit now offered the president a much-needed boost.
VACCARELLA: It goes to show you that the little guy can get to the big guy when we need to. And President Bush is a president that's a people's president.
MALVEAUX: Well, Wolf, since his visit, we've learned more about Rockey. We've learned that he is a registered Republican, that he even ran for a local office in St. Bernard Parish that he lost. But in speaking with White House officials today, they say that they were not aware of his party affiliation before the visit, but it was certainly no secret that he is a big Bush supporter. Wolf.