Over the past few weeks, as federal government confusion has become all too obvious in the Gulf, political commentators have delighted in debating whether the oil spill crisis has become Obama’s “Katrina.” The reason for this is simple. The argument allows those on the right to somehow demonstrate that all presidents make mistakes, while pointing out the other side’s hypocrisy. For those on the left, it’s another opportunity to drag President Bush’s name through the mud, blame him for a crisis he is two years removed from and to remind those on the left that the last guy would’ve made this all worse.
For media members, this debate is pure journalistic gold. It gets everyone fired up, passions flare and the debate becomes manageable for 30-second sound bites. Hence why any scandal gets the suffix “-gate” as soon as possible. It frames the story better. But here’s the big problem, everyone is missing: Katrina wasn’t even Bush’s Katrina.
From what can be gleamed from the news, the working definition of a “Katrina” scandal is a government oblivious to the suffering of its fellow citizens; a federal under-reaction to a disaster and/or ignoring the warning signs; recklessly dragging ones feet on decision making; and an absentee president providing little leadership or authority to calm a nation’s collective nerves. But when you put aside the hysterics of those who would blame Bush for the rain if he carried an umbrella, Bush’s “Katrina” never met any of these thresholds.
On the morning of Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, Hurricane Katrina (Category 1) seemed certain to make landfall in the Florida panhandle, but by the afternoon, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) used new information to revise the watch area to include southern Louisiana. A watch was issued and on Saturday, two days before the storm hit, President Bush declared a state of emergency for Louisiana allowing federal resources to begin staging immediately. Nine hundred-thirty National Guardsmen were deployed to Louisiana that day. That evening the NHC issued a hurricane warning for New Orleans.
The federal government was participating in multiple conference calls with state and local leaders who would be the sole authorities for evacuations and preparation. On Sunday, Aug. 27, at the urging of President Bush, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin finally called for a mandatory evacuation, a delay caused by his concern for the city’s hotel industry. Even with local government delays, and school buses sitting unused, 80 percent of New Orleans’ residents evacuated which was an improvement over the city’s preparations for Hurricane Ivan.
On Monday, Aug. 28, Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. By the evening, as we all now know, levees were breaching and the city was flooding. But New Orleans had experienced devastating floods before, and Governor Blanco told federal authorities they could “handle it.” On Tuesday, Aug. 29, it was clear that New Orleans could not handle what was occurring. Levees could not be plugged, and water levels continued to rise, including in city and state-deemed evacuation shelters.
On Wednesday, Aug. 30, President Bush left the command centers located at his ranch in Crawford, TX to assume leadership in Washington. He flew over the crisis, because he thought landing would pre-occupy recovery workers, divert resources and clog up air space. Little did he know that this rational decision would be the impetus for his “Katrina.”
In hindsight, everyone admits he should have landed in Baton Rouge to affirm on the ground support. In Washington, Bush established the “White House Task Force on Hurricane Katrina Response.” Bush immediately relaxed federal fuel and emissions standards to speed along the recovery and diverted several Navy ships to the region to assist.
Things did not get better for New Orleans. By Thursday, crime was rampant despite thousands of National Guardsmen, as local authorities abandoned their posts. The tragic situation at the Convention Center and the Superdome grew catastrophic. In this area, it is clear, that a situational awareness of these locations was not being communicated effectively at the federal, state or local level.
Wednesday and Thursday were certainly not anyone’s finest hours. There were mistakes made at all levels, and there was a crisis of confidence that the distressed people waiting for food, water, medical attention and shelter were being overlooked, or worse, ignored. On Thursday, President Bush asked Governor Blanco for the legal authority to have federal authorities take over the evacuation of the city. The request was rejected out of fear of “martial law.”
That evening, rapper Kanye West told America that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and then protested the unrelated Iraq War. Leftist pundits stepped over themselves to agree with the rapper. In the context of this debate, nowhere was mentioned the billions in aid the president was already sending to the Gulf, which would eventually add up to over $110 billion for housing and school reconstruction and other civic and rescue aid and welfare.
To be clear, the federal government acted far from perfect. FEMA was already a troubled agency when a near-unanimous Congress authorized to place it in the new Department of Homeland Security. A debate continues on whether FEMA should regionalize its response efforts or be reformed otherwise.
It is certainly reasonable to disagree with some of the decisions of the president or the federal authorities doing their appropriate duties on the ground. Federal bureaucracies make mistakes and when they do, they’re often big. But this was not the case of an absentee president.
From the week prior to landfall to the days, weeks and months after, President Bush was engaged. Bush wasn’t building commissions to study future hurricane effects, but was establishing working task forces for the current crisis. A joint congressional committee later reviewed the response.
In the first 40 days of the oil spill, President Obama visited the region once, 12 days in, and then again 30 days later after public pressure grew. Bush visited New Orleans four days after landfall and then often thereafter, establishing a constant, almost weekly, presence in the region.
Bush wasn’t looking for the first scapegoat available but addressed the nation accepting “full responsibility” for any failures of the federal government. After FEMA Director Michael Brown’s resignation on Sept. 2, the president relied on a familiar face to manage FEMA response in the region: Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who worked with the new interim director, David Paulison.
This also comes down to expectations. In Katrina’s aftermath, when suffering reached a peak level, an expectation existed that beyond disaster recovery, financing and loosened regulations, that the federal government could improve lives at a micro level, and immediately. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t possible in a nation as large as ours. State and local authorities have to pull their collective weight.
The oil spill’s dynamic is slightly different as it’s the struggle between what the federal government ought to do versus what BP is responsible, or more capable of handling. In both instances, the president needs to assure the nation that he is competently in control of the appropriate federal functions of governance.
Last week, Joe Klein of the faltering Time Magazine went as far as to call the oil spill, Bush’s Second Katrina which speaks more to the credibility of Joe Klein than it does the former president. Possibly the more accurate summary has been “Obama’s Iran Hostage Crisis” but that analogy is based on time, and is comparing apples to oranges.
Obama’s Oil Spill is simply Obama’s Oil Spill.
It’s time President Obama review the lessons of Katrina, including President Bush’s ability to accept that when the federal government appears confused, you need to right the ship, not look for scapegoats or accuse skeptics of not knowing the “facts.” This isn’t about politics, it’s about the lives and livelihoods of millions of Gulf Coast residents, and the environment that sustains them. In five years, what will Obama’s timeline of this incident look like?
Rory Cooper is the Director of Strategic Communications at The Heritage Foundation. He was an Associate Director in the White House Homeland Security Council between 2001 and 2004, and is a former resident of New Orleans. You can follow him on Twitter @rorycooper.