Friday, September 09, 2005


By William Fisher

Republican spinmeisters worked furiously this week to contain the political damage to President Bush caused by what he called the government’s “unacceptable” response to hurricane Katrina.

The Bush Administration may have found some comfort in yesterday’s ABC/Washington Post poll, which found that while Americans are broadly critical of government preparedness for the disaster, but far fewer blame George W. Bush personally, and public anger about the response is less widespread than some critics would suggest.

The poll found that 46 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the crisis, almost exactly half his 91 percent approval rating after Sept. 11, 2001.

The most critical views cross jurisdictions: Two-thirds of those participating in the poll say the federal government should have been better prepared to deal with a storm this size, and three-quarters say state and local governments in the affected areas likewise were insufficiently prepared.

Considering the media's hostility towards Bush on this issue these poll numbers could have been much worse for the president. The president’s popularity has been in freefall over the past few months over the Iraq war and surging gasoline prices.

However, the body count in New Orleans, and in Jackson and Biloxi, Mississippi, has not yet begun in earnest. As the numbers of dead begin to climb, the Bush Administration is likely to face another wave of bitter criticism.

The White House damage control strategy has been two-pronged. First, the president and his top advisors have been dispatched to the disaster areas – twice for the president – for carefully stage-managed photo-ops with survivors and with state and local officials. The purpose of the former is to demonstrate that the president is on top of the situation and that he really cares about people. The latter has been designed to take some of the vinegar out of the stinging criticism of the federal government that has come from New Orleans’ mayor and Louisiana’s governor, who are both Democrats.

The president met with Louisiana’s governor for an hour-and-a-half Monday, and both emerged from the meeting looking and sounding like they were finally on the same page.

The Republican majority leader in the Senate, Dr. Bill Frist of Tennessee, appeared at a press conference in Washington last night (Monday) to announce that both houses of Congress would be changing their after-recess schedule to consider legislation and hold hearings specifically focused on helping Katrina victims and communities.

Among other actions, he announced that the Homeland Security Committee of the Senate, led by Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, would be holding hearings into the Katrina disaster. No date was given.

Frist had just returned from New Orleans where, as a physician, he had joined local doctors and many from other states in providing care to the sick and wounded.

But on Capitol Hill, the administration faced widespread criticism from Democrats, but also, in a more muted manner, from his own party.

The Republican line, as expressed by Sen. Frist and many others, was to acknowledge that mistakes had been made in the week between pre-Katrina notification of the oncoming calamity and the time the storm struck.

Some federal officials said uncertainty over who was in charge had
contributed to delays in providing aid and imposing order, and officials in
Louisiana complained that Washington disaster officials had blocked some
aid efforts.

Local and state resources were so weakened, said Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, that in the future federal authorities need to take "more of an upfront role earlier on, when we have these truly ultracatastrophes."

But federal, state and local officials insisted that the real problem was that
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which Mr. Chertoff's department oversees, failed to deliver urgently needed help and, through incomprehensible red tape, even thwarted others' efforts to help.

In the fiscal 2005 budget, the Bush Administration cut flood control funding for the Gulf States by about 50 percent. But, even fully funded, use of most of that money would not have been far enough along to have made a difference with Katrina. The Army Corps of Engineers has known for decades that a category four or five hurricane accompanied by a storm surge would be like to breach New Orleans’ fragile defenses.

Leading Democrats were far less measured in their outrage.

Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a Democrat, said today that she was so angry about federal failures and second-guessing that if she heard any more criticism of local efforts, even from the president, she might "punch" him.

In a Monday press conference, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, was visibly shaken with anger and frustration. He noted that the DHS “was founded to protect us, whether from a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. The tactics are different, but the result of both is the same.”

Many others echoed his thought that, four years after 9/11, the country is still woefully unprepared to deal with mega-calamities in any organized way.

Former President Bill Clinton said the government "failed" the thousands of people who lived in coastal communities devastated by Katrina, and said a federal investigation was warranted in due time.

"Our government failed those people in the beginning, and I take it now there is no dispute about it," Clinton told CNN. "One hundred percent of the people recognize that -- that it was a failure." He and former President George H. W. Bush have launched the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to help raise money for those left homeless by the storm.

His wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, called on President Bush on Sunday to appoint an independent national commission to examine the relief effort. She also said that she intends to introduce legislation to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and restore its previous status as an independent agency with cabinet-level status.

FEMA was an independent cabinet-level agency until it was merged into the mammoth Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans was among those most vociferous in expressing his frustration. "We're still fighting over authority," he told reporters. "A bunch of people are the boss. The state and federal government are doing a two-step dance."

Homeland Security department secretary Michael Chertoff tried to deflect the criticism of his department and FEMA by saying there would be time later to decide what went wrong. Chertoff said he recognized that the local government's capacity to respond to the disaster was severely compromised by the hurricane and flood.

"What happened here was that essentially, the demolishment of that state and
local infrastructure, and I think that really caused the cascading series of
breakdowns," he said.

But Mayor Nagin said the root of the breakdown was the failure of the federal
government to deliver relief supplies and personnel quickly.

"Whatever the criticisms and the after-action report may be about what was right and what was wrong looking back, what would be a horrible tragedy would be to distract ourselves from avoiding further problems because we're spending time talking about problems that have already occurred," Chertoff said on national television.

But far from deferring to state or local officials, said a local official, FEMA asserted its authority and made things worse.

Governor Blanco announced Saturday that she had hired James Lee Witt, the
director of FEMA during the Clinton administration, to advise her on the

And, in one of what will doubtless be dozens of shocking revelations that will emerge over time, Dr. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, told the New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, that top DHS AND FEMA officials listened in on electronic briefings given by his staff in advance of Katrina slamming Louisiana and Mississippi--and were advised of the storm’s potential deadly effects.

"Mayfield said the strength of the storm and the potential disaster it could bring were made clear during both the briefings and in formal advisories, which warned of a storm surge capable of overtopping levees in New Orleans and winds strong enough to blow out windows of high-rise buildings," the paper reported. "He said the briefings included information on expected wind speed, storm surge, rainfall and the potential for tornados to accompany the storm as it came ashore. We were briefing them way before landfall," Mayfield said. "It’s not like this was a surprise. We had in the advisories that the levee could be topped."

For the president, the storm is far from over, though it is too soon to assess the extent of permanent political damage he will suffer.