Revisiting George Bush’s Katrina failures

January 5, 2009

With only 15 days left until President George W. Bush leaves office, historians and pundits are assessing Bush’s presidency – and the economic recession and Bush’s handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars dominate the headlines about Bush’s disastrous presidency. But on a purely local level, Times-Picayune columnist Stephanie Grace offers a sobering assessment of just how much damage Bush inflicted on Louisiana with his administration’s chillingly callous and ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina.

Bush’s near-complete lack of action in the week of August 29, 2005 is universally acknowledged, but his continued inaction over the past three years waphoto-buprsh-kaprtrina-flyovers equally damaging – perhaps even more so.

After Katrina, Bush had two choices.

He could cast the disaster as a wake-up call, showing genuine remorse and expediting the help he promised — in short, actually addressing the underlying problems he claimed to understand on national television under the imported floodlights on Jackson Square. He could apply the lessons of Katrina by fixing FEMA, investing in the country’s degraded infrastructure, fighting insurance industry abuse and focusing on the problems that make this and many other areas vulnerable.

Or he could largely ignore the disaster, define it down as a local issue rather than a national priority, and hope to see it drop off the radar.

Sadly, after raising hopes with the Jackson Square speech, the president chose the latter. …

In January 2006, less than five months after Katrina hit the New Orleans area and Rita struck southwest Louisiana, Bush waited until 47 minutes into his [State of the Union] address] to utter a mere 163 words about perhaps the defining event of the previous year.

The next January, with the region still limping along, he didn’t mention hurricane recovery at all — a slight that drew notice not just here but on the campaign trail. …

It wasn’t until 2008, Bush’s third State of the Union after the storm, that he gave a true shout-out to the region, announcing he’d hold the annual North American Leaders’ Summit in New Orleans that spring.

It all felt like too little too late, like Bush was playing catch-up, following Congress rather than leading. Same with Bush’s many trips to the region — often unconnected to any particular policy initiative — which seemed designed to erase the devastating image of his flyover just after the storm. …

The president’s actions after the storm did matter, and he still could have spoken to the American public. If only he’d had something productive to say.

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