Bush Blows Katrina

Following the media trail of Dubya's disaster: Doesn't anyone at the White House read National Geographic?

President Bush had that My Pet Goat look last Friday, Sept. 2, as he was briefed in an airplane hangar in Mobile, Ala. The clenched jaw, the grimace, the thousand-mile stare. Was this the expression of a man who was about to finally take charge, or a man in over his head? He stood before the cameras while the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael Brown, who just four years ago was essentially fired from his post as the judges-and-stewards commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, described to the commander in chief in alarmingly simple terms the disaster that covered the map spread before them. This was for show. The president already knew exactly how bad it was. Which made it an incredibly stupid photo op, an unintentional symbol of his weeklong failure. If you took this event at face value, the president of the United States ostensibly was just then getting up to speed on the unprecedented devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which had swept through five days earlier.

Beside Bush and Brown were Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, two governors, and U.S. Coast Guard officials. Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama, a former Republican U.S. representative, praised the federal response, apparently having watched only Fox News, where commentary and coverage in the early going were deferential to the official version of reality. Then the governors and Bush praised the Coast Guard—getting that right, at least. By actually saving lives with a fleet of 43 orange helicopters flown in from around the country—some 11,000 people have been rescued by air—the Coast Guard was the only non–local government entity that seemed to be actually doing anything before National Guard troops and supplies poured into New Orleans later that Friday, just in time for the president's visit. Time writer Nancy Gibbs this week nailed it: "Somehow Harry Connick Jr. could get to the New Orleans Convention Center and offer help, but not the National Guard."

Today we're the only developed nation with refugee camps—there's really no other term for them—and there's going to be hell to pay. For those of us who have always regarded George W. Bush as an incurious lightweight who has never lost sleep or had a real job, the president's inaction last week was tragic but not surprising. For everyone else but the most delusional Republicans, one hopes Katrina will be a watershed of realization in the months ahead if not immediately. Hundreds of stories will continue to emerge—of heroism in the absence of government, of suffering, of heartbreak. Hundreds of thousands of people without homes or jobs will look elsewhere for a future, touching every state somehow. The count of bodies will rise as quickly as the price of gas, and neither closely watched statistic will encourage people to spend money this fall. Noted Slate business writer Daniel Gross: "Economically speaking, Katrina is no 9/11. It may be much worse." There will also be a 9/11 Commission–caliber investigation, although, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote, if 9/11 is any guide, full disclosure will come only "after the administration and its apologists erect every possible barrier to keep us from learning the truth."

Friday, Sept. 2: National Guard soldiers assist stranded New Orleans residents outside the convention center.

(Mario Tama / Getty Images)

The Katrina aftermath might have been the best-covered disaster in history. But so far, no journalist has been able to satisfactorily answer what everyone wants to know: How could the response have been so botched? No disaster is more predictable than a hurricane, and this one was anticipated years ago. How can you screw up a tropical storm relief effort in the age of satellites, after all the lessons we've learned from dozens of previous storms? If you review what experts have been saying about Louisiana for years and what they predicted the weekend before the storm hit, and if you think back at what obviously needed to be done in the aftermath based on what we all saw on television, and when you consider that numerous journalists were getting downright combative with government officials as those officials insisted on remaining clueless, it's hard to understand how the president, that Friday in Mobile, could have said to the FEMA chief: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Just two hours earlier at the White House, as he was about to head for the Gulf Coast, Bush had conceded to reporters, finally, that the government's response to Katrina was not acceptable. In Bush's brain, which assessment was true?

The contradiction was emblematic. Said Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline the day before the president's tour of the devastation: "To hear federal and local officials describing what is happening on the ground in New Orleans is to know that one group or the other is seriously out of touch or incapable of confronting the truth."

Last week, as New Orleans sank, I remembered a story about Louisiana in the October 2004 issue of National Geographic and pulled it from a stack on my shelf. "Gone with the Water," said the headline. "The Louisiana bayou, hardest working marsh in America, is in big trouble—with dire consequences for residents, the nearby city of New Orleans, and seafood lovers everywhere." I remembered the subject of the story—how oil and gas extraction, dredging for vessel navigation, and flood-control measures that prevent silt replenishment were destroying the marshes and barrier islands of the Mississippi River delta, which help absorb the surges of storms. But I had forgotten how writer Joel K. Bourne Jr. had begun this quintessential NG account of man vs. nature. When I began reading the opening anecdote, about a hurricane hitting New Orleans, my jaw dropped.

 . . . As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. . . . As it reached 25 feet over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. . . . It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City.

The prescience of this story from a year ago doesn't end there. Go read it. Then consider the award-winning coverage of this issue over the years by The Times-Picayune in New Orleans (www.nola.com/hurricane/?/washingaway/). Just last May 31, reporter Mark Schleifstein told readers about revised plans to evacuate the city should a hurricane bear down on the Gulf Coast:

Those without transportation need to be planning now how they'll get to safety, New Orleans Emergency Preparedness Director Joseph Matthews said.

"It's important to emphasize that we just don't have the resources to take everybody out," Matthews said.

He said the viability of the bus plan depends on whether Regional Transit Authority and New Orleans public-school officials find enough volunteer drivers.

New Orleans is in an unusual situation, compared with neighboring parishes, because more than a quarter of its residents have no personal transportation. According to the most recent census data, about 134,000 out of the city's 480,000 people are without cars, said Shirley Laska, director of the University of New Orleans' Center for Hazards Assessment, Response & Technology.

A few days earlier, May 28, Times-Picayune reporter Sheila Grissett wrote that Congress four years ago gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "permission to begin its study of structures that could stave off storm surge from the biggest of all hurricanes—but not the money to do the study." Local Corps officials had been pushing to get funding ever since, wrote Grissett, but "the efforts come at a time when Congress and the Bush administration are steadily reducing appropriations for both hurricane system improvements and flood-protection construction in the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project." Of course, had the president and Congress appropriated all the money—they ended up allocating about half of what was asked—it would have been years before that new infrastructure was in place to do any good. But the odds of a Category 5 storm hitting the Gulf Coast are no less in the future than in the past.

If early warnings by scientists and engineers had no effect, surely the ones that accompanied Katrina's approach did, right? On Sunday, Aug. 28, catastrophe seemed assured in this Associated Press account:

Experts expect Katrina to turn New Orleans into Atlantis, leaving up to 1 million homeless

By Matt Crenson

When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans on Monday, it could turn one of America's most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city's legendary cemeteries.

Experts have warned for years that the levees and pumps that usually keep New Orleans dry have no chance against a direct hit by a Category 5 storm.

That's exactly what Katrina was as it churned toward the city. With top winds of 160 mph and the power to lift sea level by as much as 28 feet above normal, the storm threatened an environmental disaster of biblical proportions, one that could leave more than 1 million people homeless.

"All indications are that this is absolutely worst-case scenario," Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, said Sunday afternoon.

The center's latest computer simulations indicate that by Tuesday, vast swaths of New Orleans could be under water up to 30 feet deep. In the French Quarter, the water could reach 20 feet, easily submerging the district's iconic cast-iron balconies and bars.

Estimates predict that 60 percent to 80 percent of the city's houses will be destroyed by wind. With the flood damage, most of the people who live in and around New Orleans could be homeless.

"We're talking about in essence having—in the continental United States—having a refugee camp of a million people," van Heerden said.

Let the record show that van Heerden was dead wrong about the French Quarter, which was relatively unscathed. But Katrina otherwise was every bit as bad as predicted, and FEMA knew it would be. "It's a very dangerous situation at this point," spokesperson Nicol Andrews told The Associated Press that Sunday. "We're ready and awaiting landfall."

As Katrina hit on Monday, Aug. 29, the president assured the nation, at stops in Arizona and California where he was traveling to pitch Medicare drug benefits, that the government would do everything it could to help residents in affected areas. "For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we are prepared to help," Bush said, "don't be. We are." Having dispensed with that obligatory though baseless assurance, behind the scenes the president was considering whether to release federal petroleum reserves to help refiners. Apparently assuming the people were taken care of, the president was poised to help the industry he used to work for, the companies responsible for the years of drilling, dredging, and drying that made Louisiana increasingly vulnerable to storms in the first place, as explained by National Geographic and other media in recent years.

Thursday, Sept. 1: The refugees wait at the convention center. The scene brought Fox News' Geraldo Rivera to tears.

(Mario Tama/ Getty Images)

We all know what happened next. On Monday, Aug. 29, the day the storm hit, the first levee breaches were reported. The next day, AP was unequivocal about the disaster that was developing. Wrote Adam Nossiter: "Helicopters dropped sandbags on two broken levees as the water kept rising in the streets. The governor drew up plans to evacuate just about everyone left in town. Looters ransacked stores. Doctors in their scrubs had to use canoes to bring supplies to blacked-out hospitals. New Orleans sank deeper into crisis Tuesday, a full day after Hurricane Katrina hit."

On NBC's Meet the Press later, Chertoff implied that no one could have known how bad it was about to get. "I think if you look at what actually happened," he told Tim Russert, "I remember on Tuesday morning picking up newspapers and I saw headlines, 'New Orleans Dodged the Bullet,' because if you recall the storm moved to the east and then continued on and appeared to pass with considerable damage but nothing worse." (Secondary headlines that day in The New York Times and The Washington Post said, respectively: "New Orleans Escapes a Direct Hit" and "No Direct Hit in New Orleans, But Extensive Destruction.") "It was midday Tuesday," Aug. 30, Chertoff continued on Meet the Press, "that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the gap and that essentially the lake was going to start to drain into the city. I think that second catastrophe really caught everybody by surprise."

Everybody but those who subscribed to Louisiana newspapers or National Geographic.

By Wednesday, Aug. 31, things were very bad in New Orleans. Conditions at the Louisiana Superdome, where thousands of people had ridden out the storm and awaited transportation out of the city, were deteriorating, with reports of death and violence. And another crisis was developing at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which wasn't an official gathering place but for some reason was attracting thousands of displaced residents who were without food and water. All of this, of course, was being reported on TV, in Web logs, and in newspaper stories.

As the president returned to Washington, D.C., from the West, Air Force One swooped in low to see the damage. "It's devastating," Bush was quoted by White House spokesperson Scott McClellan as saying. "It's got to be doubly devastating on the ground."

In Washington and in Baton Rouge, the state capital where the response was being coordinated, officials like Chertoff and Brown were telling the media that thousands of this and millions of that were in the affected areas or on the way, that the government was pulling out all the stops. Ships, soldiers, meals ready to eat, water, buses. But journalists, some of them uncharacteristically emotional, were reporting something quite different from ground zero. Here's what AP's Nossiter wrote on Thursday, Sept. 1:

NEW ORLEANS—Storm victims were raped and beaten, fights and fires broke out, corpses lay out in the open, and rescue helicopters and law-enforcement officers were shot at as flooded-out New Orleans descended into anarchy Thursday. "This is a desperate SOS," the mayor said.

Anger mounted across the ruined city, with thousands of storm victims increasingly hungry, desperate and tired of waiting for buses to take them out.

Monday, Sept. 5: One of many victims, the covered body of Alcede Jackson was respectfully left on the front porch of his New Orleans home.

(Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

By midweek, what was needed was obvious: a humanitarian shock and awe effort, with military boots on the ground and in the water to secure the city for rescuers, and convoys of food and water. Buses and supplies were trickling in, but, for the most part, the tens of thousands of displaced residents of New Orleans at the Superdome, in the convention center, and on elevated Interstate 10 were without hope. No one seemed to be talking to them except journalists. Numerous residents, when asked, said FEMA was missing in action. No one was in charge. Reporters were getting frantic. CNN's Anderson Cooper was aggressively questioning every official he interviewed, including Democratic Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. By Friday, even after supplies began arriving in the city in meaningful volume, Fox News correspondents Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera were livid because the people in trouble weren't getting that help. Rivera, in tears, held up an infant for the camera.

Thursday night, Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline finally laid it on the line for FEMA Director Brown, a small-time lawyer from Oklahoma and Colorado, the former horse-show rules enforcer who had ridden the coattails of a patronage appointment and risen to be in charge of this mess.

Koppel: Mr. Brown, some of these people are dead. They're beyond your help. Some of these people have died because they needed insulin and they couldn't get it. Some of the people died because they were in hospitals and they couldn't get the assistance that they needed. You say you were surprised by the fact that so many people didn't make it out. It's no surprise to anyone that you had at least 100,000 people in the city of New Orleans who are dirt poor. Who don't have cars, who don't have access to public transportation, who don't have any way of getting out of the city simply because somebody says, "You know, there's a force five storm coming, you ought to get out." If you didn't have buses there to get them out, why should it be a surprise to you that they stayed?

Brown: Well, Ted, you know, we're, I'm not going to sit here and second-guess why or when evacuation orders were given or why or why not the city didn't have buses available. You know, that's just not the thing that we need to do right now. Frankly, if they, if they had, if they had put buses there . . . 

Koppel: Not the city, not the city. I'm not asking you, Mr. Brown, why the city didn't have buses available, I'm asking you why you didn't have National Guards in there with trucks to get them out of there. Why you didn't have people with flatbed trailers if that's what you needed. Why you didn't, you know, simply get Greyhound buses from as many surrounding states as you could lay your hands on to get those people out of there. Why you haven't done it to this day?

Brown: Ted, we're doing all of that. We're moving all of those things in there, and what people need to understand is that when you're doing these life-saving and life-sustaining kind of operations, then if I move rescue workers into harm's way and they become victims themselves, it just makes the problem doubly worse. So, yes, we move in when it's safe to move in. We move in when we can do that. We work closely with the state government. The federal government did not come in here and just tell this governor how or what to do. We came in here and said what do you want us to do? We will help you. We are now taking it upon ourselves to do things that we think need to be done, and we will continue to do that, because that's our job.

If the administration hoped the finger-pointing would die down once the National Guard and regular Army moved in over this past weekend, it was disappointed. On Meet the Press, Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, a municipality adjoining New Orleans, ripped into FEMA for being a hindrance. He was not the first person to say so.

Saturday, Sept. 3: Some were still awaiting rescue from the stench of the convention center.

(Ron Haviv / Vii via Associated Press)

"We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water," he told Russert. "FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. We had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, 'Come get the fuel right away.' When we got there with our trucks, they got a word. 'FEMA says don't give you the fuel.' Yesterday—yesterday—FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in, he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards on our line and says, 'No one is getting near these lines.' Sheriff Harry Lee said that if American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn't be in this crisis.

"Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now. It's so obvious. FEMA needs more congressional funding. It needs more presidential support. It needs to be a Cabinet-level director. It needs to be an independent agency that will be able to fulfill its mission to work in partnership with state and local governments around America. FEMA needs to be empowered to do the things it was created to do."

Broussard concluded by summing up, between sobs, the feeling of local officials and residents alike last week: "Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary [of Homeland Security] has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences," he said, echoing an earlier expletive-rich rant by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. "For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody."

Denise Bottcher, press secretary for Louisiana Gov. Blanco, who is certain to be accountable to some degree for this tragedy, told The New York Times: "We wanted soldiers, helicopters, food, and water. They wanted to negotiate an organizational chart."

In the first detailed attempt to explain what went so wrong with FEMA's management of the crisis, The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Sept. 6, examined, among other things, the 2003 creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed FEMA. Homeland Security defanged the agency, the Journal and others have noted, scaling back its mission and reducing its status from a Cabinet-level organization answering directly to the president to one of dozens inside Homeland Security, where the emphasis on disaster response has been almost exclusively on terrorism. Bill Waugh, an expert on emergency management at Georgia State University, told the Journal: "What the events of the last week have shown is that over the last few years since 9/11 we have slowly disassembled our national emergency response system and put in its place something far inferior."

Still unexplained, however, is why somebody with authority last week didn't do something about what the world saw on TV, bureaucracy or no.

Wednesday, Aug. 31: President Bush saw the devastation during a flyby on Air Force One while en route to the White House.

(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

As this week began, you would have thought that the federal government finally got it. But even as late as Monday, Sept. 5, the days-long delay of rescue was being downplayed. Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Northern Command—the full-time military inside the homeland—told reporters: "From our perspective, aid was moving before the storm hit. From the perspective of those folks who were without food and water for a couple of hours, maybe overnight into the next day, in Louisiana and Mississippi, that's a long time." A couple of hours? The next day? Astonishingly, another government official without cable TV.

In his Sunday column, Sept. 4, Seattle Times executive editor Michael Fancher correctly called the reporters who covered the Katrina aftermath unsung first responders, and he singled out The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, which had to relocate and published for a couple of days only on the Web. The paper's journalists joined the national correspondents and bloggers who couldn't believe what they were seeing— an unresponsive U.S. government, which supposedly knows how to help people on a massive scale when disaster strikes. An editorial titled "An Open Letter to the President" summed up the nagging disconnect that remains unexplained more than a week after the storm: "Despite the city's multiple points of entry, our nation's bureaucrats spent days after last week's hurricane wringing their hands, lamenting the fact that they could neither rescue the city's stranded victims nor bring them food, water and medical supplies.

"Meanwhile there were journalists, including some who work for The Times-Picayune, going in and out of the city. . . . Yet, the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid, were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach."

Bob Schieffer on CBS's Face the Nation addressed the disconnect from the perspective of the Beltway: "As scenes of horror that seemed to be coming from some Third World country flashed before us, official Washington was like a dog watching television. It saw the lights and images but did not seem to comprehend their meaning or see any link to reality. As the floodwaters rose, local officials in New Orleans ordered the city evacuated. They might as well have told their citizens to fly to the moon. How do you evacuate when you don't have a car? No hint of intelligent design in any of this. This was just survival of the richest."

He wasn't to blame, but President Bush is responsible for it all. His hands-off handling of Katrina has been every bit as dumb as Bill Clinton's handling of Monica. The difference is Monica didn't kill anybody. Wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik: "George W. Bush is known for never admitting his mistakes. Consequently, he never learns from his mistakes. The chances are dismal that he will learn from this one. We're on our own."

Just like the people of New Orleans.

But wait—this just in from the White House: "What I intend to do is to lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong," Bush said Tuesday, Sept. 6.

It's going to be a long 40 months until the president leaves office, for him and us.

ctaylor@seattleweekly.com

 
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