Flood system: Stronger now; weaker than expectations _lowres

Water surrounds houses around the 17th Street Canal levee break in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while houses on the other side remained dry. (Advocate Photo by Travis Spradling)

Controversial Iowa Congressman Steve King, who has faced repeated backlash over his extreme views on race and immigration, cited Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans as an example of bad disaster victims, compared to his Iowa constituents, during a town hall Thursday.

King, a Republican who was stripped of his committee assignments earlier this year after questioning why "white supremacist" and other racist language is deemed offensive, told the crowd in Charter Oak, Iowa, that an unnamed FEMA official told him that Katrina victims only looked for government help, as opposed to Iowans who “take care of each other."

In a video that King posted on Facebook and that was first reported by HuffPost, King says he made four trips to New Orleans in the wake of the catastrophic and deadly 2005 hurricane.

He sets up the anecdote to explain why he’s proud that Iowa, which is currently experiencing massive flooding, has a better reputation.

“Here’s what FEMA tells me: ‘We go to a place like New Orleans and everybody’s looking around saying, who’s gonna help me, who’s gonna help me?’” he tells the crowd. “They’re just always gratified when they come and see how Iowans take care of each other. It’s a point of pride that spreads across the country.”

King doesn’t explicitly mention race in the exchange. His district in Iowa is about 95 percent white. About 67 percent of the population of the city of New Orleans was black when Katrina hit, and poor people and black people were disproportionately more heavily impacted by Katrina.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year, called King's remarks "disgusting and disheartening."

"When communities are affected by disasters, we come together to help each other, not tear each other down," he said.

The Advocate reached out to the six U.S. House members who represent Louisiana for comment Thursday evening and will update with responses.

U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who represents a suburban New Orleans district, swiftly condemned King's remarks.

"His comments about Katrina victims are absurd and offensive, and are a complete contradiction to the strength and resilience the people of New Orleans demonstrated to the entire nation in the wake of the total devastation they experienced," Scalise said.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat who has been a vocal critic of King in the past, called his latest remarks about Katrina unsettling.

"When people show you who they are, believe them," Richmond tweeted. "Steve King is a white supremacist and I won’t stand for it."

Rep. Ralph Abraham, a northeast Louisiana Republican who is running for governor against Edwards, also condemned King's remarks.

"Louisianians have faced our fair share of adversity, and I’m always amazed at how quickly we rally from across the state to help one another when disaster strikes," Abraham said. "Anyone who would say otherwise doesn’t know the real Louisiana. I wholeheartedly reject the comments that disparaged our state and her people during one of the most difficult times in Louisiana’s history. We experience hardship together, and we rebuild together because there are no more resilient people in this country than Louisianians."

Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, a Republican also challenging Edwards in the governor's race, also roundly condemned King's comments.

"Rep. King’s portrayal of New Orleans and the victims of Katrina is illogical and offensive," he said. "Louisianans’ are well-known for their compassion and cooperation when confronted with disaster. Perhaps King missed President Trump’s praise of the Cajun Navy during the 2018 State of the Union.”

Trump has repeatedly praised the Cajun Navy, a loosely-organized band of Louisiana residents and boaters who voluntarily assist with rescues during natural disasters.

U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, a Bossier Parish Republican who is chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, also cited the heroic assistance that the Cajun Navy has given during disasters in his condemnation of King's remarks.

“Louisianians are some of the strongest, most committed and most resilient people in the world, and we have proven that over and over again. We certainly proved it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," he said. "Not only do we step up to help our neighbors at home, we deploy countless citizen-led efforts, like the 'Cajun-Navy,' to areas all across this country to help other Americans in need. Any suggestion otherwise is absurd and deserves to be universally denounced."

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, had searing words for King, who he said should have resigned before even making the Katrina remarks.

"Rep. Steve King is burning himself down. Ashes," he said. "Louisiana is predominately Catholic by faith. Recently, we received our anointed ashes on Ash Wednesday. A sign of humility and submission to God’s will. That would have been a good day for Congressman King to resign... before he said disparaging things about Louisiana’s heritage and culture. "It’s apparent that Mr. King knows little about the people of Louisiana," Higgins continued. "Our state has proven for generations to be resilient in the wake of disasters. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav, and the floods of 2016. We’ve weathered every storm and rebuilt together. When Hurricane Harvey left Southeast Texas underwater, Louisiana was there with boats and supplies. Our community knows adversity, and when it strikes, we come together. Americans helping Americans regardless of color, creed or ideology.”

Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson, a state senator and New Orleans native, called King's remarks appalling.

“Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana leaving 1,800 dead with tens of thousands more homeless and impoverished. He has no right to comment on what our people have been through or continue to spread these falsities," she said. "His dog whistle comments today are a further display of his racist, white supremacist beliefs and call on prejudiced, hate-filled stereotypes that he has no problem displaying. There is no place for this sort of hateful rhetoric in our government and we need our leaders to show that they will not tolerate it.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.