Jindal’s Katrina Story: A Tall Tale?

The evidence continues to grow that the story Bobby Jindal told Tuesday night — about how he backed a tough-talking sheriff’s efforts to rescue Katrina victims, government red-tape be damed — was, how to put it … made up.

Delivering the GOP response to President Obama’s speech to Congress, Jindal had his first chance to impress a national audience. To do so, he told the following story:

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office I’d never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: ‘Well, I’m the Sheriff and if you don’t like it you can come and arrest me!’ I asked him: ‘Sheriff, what’s got you so mad?’ He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go – when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn’t go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, ‘Sheriff, that’s ridiculous.’ And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: ‘Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!’ Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and start rescuing people.

But there are several pieces of evidence that suggest this just didn’t happen. Nothing, to be sure, that definitively proves the story was made up. But more than enough to declare it highly suspicious.

First, Jindal’s story has Lee railing against the red-tape in the midst of the crisis. But Lee, the sheriff of Jefferson Parish in suburban New Orleans, told CNN he didn’t find out about the license and registration issue until about seven days after the incident.

Here’s Lee talking to Larry King (via Nexis) a week or so after Katrina:

I fully believe that when then matter is looked into, we tried to get some boats in the water early on. When I realized that we had a problem, I was the one that made the call in WWO (UNINTELLIGIBLE) radio if there was anybody with a boat to come to a place so that we can get the boats in the water because I was around when — the other big hurricanes, and most of the rescue done early on were individual fisherman, recreational fisherman that had boats that went in the water. Those boats where not allowed to get into the water when they were needed and I just found out about seven days later one of the reason boats couldn’t get in was they didn’t have enough life preservers and some of them didn’t have proof of insurance. And I’m sure that there’s a FEMA regulation that says that. But when a storm of this magnitude hits, you through those regulations out the window and you do what you have to do and start saving lives. (our itals)

It’s within the realm of possibility, just, that Lee and Jindal are talking about two separate incidents. But from the way the details line up, it’s reasonable to assume they’re the same.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Daily Kos diarist xgz assembled a slew of additional evidence suggesting that Jindal took some serious dramatic license, at best. To summarize:

According to numerous reports, Harry Lee did not leave the affected area of New Orleans during the crisis. But there is no reported evidence of Jindal having set foot in the area during the period when people were still stranded on roofs — which, based on a review of news stories from the time, was only until September 3 at the very latest. Indeed, the evidence strongly suggests he did not…

When the storm made landfall on August 29, Jindal was on a foreign trip. His family was evacuated to his parents’ house in Baton Rouge, and when he returned, he went straight there to join them. In a September 1st CNN interview given from Baton Rouge, Jindal talked about taking an aerial tour of the disaster area, but didn’t mention anything about having been on the ground personally. We’ve reviewed Nexis and other sources, and can find no news reports putting Jindal on the ground in the affected area during the few days after Katrina struck when people might still have needed boats to rescue them from rooftops.

Schedule issues aside, it’s also noticeable that Jindal has talked or written several times before about the problems of excessive red tape during Katrina, but has never told this story.

On September 8, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Jindal detailing how “[i]n Katrina’s wake, red tape too often trumped common sense.” Jindal listed several anecdotes to illustrate the problem, including one that involved a sheriff, and another about a boat evacuation. But nothing that resembled the Lee story he told Tuesday. You’d think that would have been his lead example.

And in 2008, Jindal told Human Events:

There are thousands of these stories. I talked to a sheriff in an area where they had people with boats that were ready to go in the water and rescue people and they were turned away because they didn’t have proof of registration and insurance, they didn’t bring the right paperwork. The bureaucracy was just awful.

The implication here is that Jindal talked to the sheriff after the fact, not that he was in his office during the moment of crisis.

As we said, none of this settles the question definitively. But it certainly raises a whole lot of questions about Jindal’s tale. Those questions were enough for MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, in a short segment last night on the controversy, to conclude that the story is “apparently not true.”

Of course, Harry Lee could put this to rest once and for all. But he died in 2007.

We called Jindal’s office, asking for any information that might help establish the story’s veracity. They haven’t gotten back to us.

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