Was Jindal's story about Katrina true?

While staffers for the governor appear to be walking back key details on the timing, Salon finds a hole in a major element of the account.

Published February 27, 2009 8:00PM (EST)

In his response to President Obama's address to Congress Tuesday night, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal put one story, about rescues in Hurricane Katrina and the power of the American people as opposed to the government, at the center of his argument. But on Friday, Jindal staffers began walking the story back, admitting that it wasn't quite the heat of the moment situation the governor seemed to be describing. (They deny, however, that there's any difference between what they're saying now and what Jindal said Tuesday.)

Here's Jindal's story, which involves Henry Lee, the late sheriff of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana:

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.

On Friday, after liberal bloggers at Daily Kos and TPMMuckraker raised questions about the account, Jindal communications director told Politico's Ben Smith that the encounter didn't happen at the actual time of the rescue effort, but "days later."

"Sheriff Lee was on the phone and the governor came down to visit him. It wasn't that they were standing right down there with the boats," Sellers said. The governor's chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, gave a similar account, saying, "Bobby and I walked into Harry Lee’s office -- he’s yelling on the phone about a decision he’s already made. He’s saying, 'This is a decision I made, and if you don’t like it you can come and arrest me.'"

In its own investigation of the story, Salon has found that, while it is true bureaucrats were delaying the rescue effort, the explanation Jindal gave -- that they wanted to see proof of insurance and registration -- might not be true.

Lee hinted as much in a September 2005 interview with CNN's Larry King. "Those boats where not allowed to get into the water when they were needed," Lee said, "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." Lee himself died in 2007, and his widow could not be reached for comment.

But Salon did speak with one man who was part of that rescue effort, Jerry Riggs. Riggs says that, having lived through the frustration of being held up for two and a half hours before he could go save people trapped by the storm, he agrees with the gist of Jindal's story, that the government caused a delay, to the great frustration of the people involved. "You have to understand the situation -- we were all really anxious to get out there and start saving lives," Riggs says. His account of the reason for the delay differs from Jindal's in one crucial way, however. Riggs says the authorities weren't asking about red tape things like insurance or boat registrations. They were checking identification -- possibly, he thinks, in case some of the rescuers never made it back alive.

On the day of the incident, Riggs heard Lee's call for volunteers go out over local radio at about 11:00 a.m. By 1:00 pm, he had joined a fleet of boat owners that had gathered at a local grocery store. Escorted, initially, by Jefferson Parish police, and later by officers from Orleans Parish police department, they made their way slowly to Harrah's Casino, where a gas truck filled up the boats' tanks for free and their owners were given stocks of ice and fresh water.

But it was there, on the dry ground by Harrah's, that the would-be rescuers were held-up by government officials.

"I was in a long line of people," Riggs recalls. "We waited for about two and half hours. People had gotten out of their cars and were talking. Every once and a while someone would walk up to the front of the line and come back and say, 'These idiots are just trying to gather information.'"

Upon finally arriving at the front of the line, Riggs -- like others who'd preceded him -- wasn't turned away. "When I got there they wanted my driver's license," he says. "I was a little bit put off. I told them I just survived a hurricane, and jumped in my boat, and I certainly don't have my wallet. Let me see your identification."

Despite having asked for his driver's license and social security number, when Riggs only provided his name, the officials let him through anyway. He told Salon that he was under the distinct impression they were collecting names in case any of the rescuers met some sort of misfortune and didn't come back.

Salon has asked for further comment and clarification from Jindal's office; if and when we hear anything, we'll update this post.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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