Toppling the truth

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Chicago Tribune

It was one of the most iconic, most agonizing, most rebroadcast moments of TV coverage after Hurricane Katrina. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sept. 4, Jefferson Parish, La., president Aaron Broussard sobbed as he told of a colleague's mother begging her son, day after maddening day, to be rescued:

"The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything," said Broussard, justifiably upset by the slow federal response. "His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, 'Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?' And he said, 'Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday.' And she drowned Friday night! She drowned Friday night!"

Horrifying story, viewed worldwide. Trouble is, Broussard's version didn't happen. On Sept. 19, MSNBC.com explained what evidently did.

Eva Rodrigue, 92, did perish -- not on Sept. 2, but four days earlier, on Aug. 29, the same day levees breached and Louisiana flooded. Big difference: Mrs. Rodrigue didn't die because the feds or anybody else neglected for four days to rescue her. She died because, before the storm surge, nobody forced owners of the notorious St. Rita's Nursing Home to evacuate her and some 30 other patients who died there.

MSNBC asked the woman's son, Thomas Rodrigue, emergency services director for Jefferson Parish, to comment on Broussard's by now legendary story. His reply:

"No, no, that's not true. I can't tell you what [Broussard] said that day, why he was confused. I'm assuming he was under a tremendous amount of pressure."

So are lots of officials in Louisiana and Washington. Which is why so many of them are heaving blame at one another.

Last week the Associated Press took a truth-squad approach to several other much-repeated assertions. Examples:

* No, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hasn't shortchanged levee work in New Orleans. In fact, the levees that breached already had been fortified by the corps to withstand a Category 3 storm -- with no additional work planned or even requested. Federal spending on New Orleans' levee project actually has risen since 2000.

* No, President Bush erred in saying, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." In fact, federal agencies had run an elaborate exercise involving a fictional Hurricane Pam -- a Category 3 storm projected to cause 61,290 deaths and leave parts of greater New Orleans uninhabitable for more than a year.

Why, then, was the response to Katrina so flawed?

That's the crucial question -- and the answer will come from hard facts, not the emotional oral tradition that has erupted since Aug. 29.

"I find this more troubling than deception in the political campaigns," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, told the AP. "If we don't hold the right people accountable and the right processes accountable, we'll risk having another catastrophe without real preparedness, and more people will die needlessly."

Amen. The sooner a formal probe of what occurred separates truth from rhetoric, the better.

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