CNN's Henry uncritically reported Republicans' use of wildfire response to shift Katrina blame away from feds

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

CNN's Ed Henry uncritically reported that "local Republicans hammered the point that, unlike in Louisiana, California officials only relied on the feds for the secondary help," quoting Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray as saying, "I think that's how the system's actually designed, and it's worked great." But the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina found that Katrina was not a "normal" disaster, but a "catastrophic" one; thus, federal officials should have "clearly and forcefully instruct[ed] everyone involved with the federal response to be proactive, anticipate future requirements, develop plans to fulfill them, and execute those plans without waiting for formal requests from overwhelmed state and local response officials."

On the October 25 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry uncritically reported that "local Republicans hammered the point that, unlike in Louisiana, California officials only relied on the feds for the secondary help." He then quoted Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), who said, "In San Diego, they didn't wait for the federal government to show up. They got the job done as much as they could locally, and then used federal assistance as a supplement. So I think that's how the system's actually designed, and it's worked great." However, Henry did not mention that the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, which released its final report on February 15, 2006, found that while normal disaster response in the U.S. calls for state and local officials to coordinate and lead, and federal officials to provide aid as requested, Katrina was not a "normal" disaster, but a "catastrophic" one. In that situation, the House committee found, federal officials -- as the federal government's own disaster response plan stated -- should have "clearly and forcefully instruct[ed] everyone involved with the federal response to be proactive, anticipate future requirements, develop plans to fulfill them, and execute those plans without waiting for formal requests from overwhelmed state and local response officials."

By contrast, an October 25 Washington Post article reported crucial differences between the scope of the Katrina disaster and the wildfires. According to the article, "[f]ederal and state emergency managers" said that "the two disasters [Katrina and the current wildfire outbreak] can hardly be compared. Katrina's floods and winds wreaked havoc on a far larger scale." The article reported that "the Federal Emergency Management Agency's responsibilities for battling wildfires are far more limited than its role in dealing with hurricane damage," as well as other critical differences:

While Katrina's vast floods and winds covered an area the size of Britain at 90,000 square miles, fires in seven California counties blackened about 700 square miles as of yesterday -- a footprint one-third smaller than wildfires burned there four years ago. The number of homes destroyed was about 1 percent of the 300,000 made uninhabitable by Katrina, and financial losses were less than 2 percent, based on initial estimates, comparable to the damage caused by wildfires in Oakland in 1991 and in Southern California in 2003.

Local officials have choreographed the largest evacuation in Golden State history, with estimates of the people instructed to leave their homes at 351,000. But many began returning yesterday. Katrina prompted the evacuation of 1.1 million people, and 500,000 were still displaced after four months.

As White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino said, "These fires are not the same disaster that we had in Katrina."

As Media Matters for America noted, the House committee's report concluded that "[i]n essence, ... while a national emergency management system that relies on state and local governments to identify needs and request resources is adequate for most disasters, a catastrophic disaster like Katrina can and did overwhelm most aspects of the system for an initial period of time." The committee further found that:

  • A proactive federal response, or push system, is not a new concept, but it is rarely utilized.
  • The Secretary [of Homeland Security] should have invoked the Catastrophic Incident Annex to direct the federal response posture to fully switch from a reactive to proactive mode of operations.

Elaborating on the latter point, the committee -- while not excusing state and local officials for their actions -- faulted the federal government's failure to act without formal state and local requests, as the Department of Homeland Security National Reponse Plan's Catastrophic Incident Annex (NRP-CIA) called for. The committee report stated:

Perhaps the single most important question the Select Committee has struggled to answer is why the federal response did not adequately anticipate the consequences of Katrina striking New Orleans and, prior to landfall, begin to develop plans and move boats and buses into the area to rescue and evacuate tens of thousand [sic] of victims from a flooded city. At least part of the answer lies in the Secretary's failure to invoke the NRP-CIA, to clearly and forcefully instruct everyone involved with the federal response to be proactive, anticipate future requirements, develop plans to fulfill them, and execute those plans without waiting for formal requests from overwhelmed state and local response officials.

The NRP-CIA was specifically written for a disaster such as Katrina. According to the NRP:

  • A catastrophic incident results in large numbers of casualties and displaced persons.
  • The incident may cause significant disruption to the area's critical infrastructure.
  • A credible operating picture may not be achievable for 24 to 48 hours or longer. As a result, response activities must begin without the benefit of a complete needs assessment.
  • Federal support must be provided in a timely manner to save lives, prevent human suffering, and mitigate severe damage. This may require mobilizing and deploying assets before they are requested via normal NRP protocols.
  • Large-scale evacuations, organized or self-directed may occur.
  • Large numbers of people may be left homeless and may require prolonged temporary housing.

It is clear the consequences of Hurricane Katrina exceeded all of these criteria and required a proactive response. According to the NRP, "Upon recognition that a catastrophic incident condition (e.g. involving mass casualties and/or mass evacuation) exists, the Secretary of DHS immediately designates the event an INS and begins, potentially in advance of a formal Presidential disaster declaration, implementation of the NRP-CIA." On Monday evening, when DHS received reports the levees had breached in multiple locations, it should have been clear to the department the nation's worst case hurricane scenario had occurred and a proactive federal response was required. Chertoff never invoked the NRP-CIA.

From the 7 p.m. ET segment of the October 25 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

WOLF BLITZER (host): Tonight, President Bush is promising quick help to California's fire victims after getting a firsthand look at what he calls a sad situation. His trip to the fire zone is raising more questions about the federal government's response now compared to Hurricane Katrina then. Our White House correspondent Ed Henry is traveling with the president.

[begin video clip]

HENRY: Aboard Marine One, President Bush flew over homes charred to the ground. But unlike his Hurricane Katrina flyover, which fed an image of being out of touch, Mr. Bush actually touched down in Southern California.

BUSH: We're not going to forget you in Washington, D.C.

HENRY: The comforter-in-chief consoling Jay and Kendra Jeffcoat. All they have left is the remnants of a spiral staircase and a cocker spaniel named Trevor. Amid the devastation, the president dismissed comparisons between Katrina and the wildfires.

BUSH: There's all kinds of time for historians to compare this response or that response.

HENRY: But in part, this was about trying to exorcise the demons of Katrina. So after a critical endorsement from popular Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger --

SCHWARZENEGGER: I want to say thank you, first of all, to President Bush for his tremendous support and for his immediate help in this terrible disaster.

HENRY: -- the president returned the favor with a broadside at Louisiana's Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco.

BUSH: It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead.

HENRY: There were also images of the president embracing first responders and briefings showing a commander in chief in charge, all carefully orchestrated to show this time the president is fully engaged. And local Republicans hammered the point that unlike in Louisiana, California officials only relied on the feds for secondary help.

BILBRAY: In San Diego, they didn't wait for the federal government to show up. They got the job done as much as they could locally, and then used federal assistance as a supplement. So I think that's how the system's actually designed, and it's worked great.

HENRY: Officials here say this could be a blueprint for communities around the country in terms of disaster preparedness: Locals taking the lead, the federal government finishing the job. Ed Henry, CNN, with the president in San Diego.

Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Ed Henry
Show/Publication
The Situation Room
Stories/Interests
Hurricane Katrina, Natural Disasters
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.