Fri, Oct 26, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Disastrous response to Katrina still plagues Bush in California

Pentagon officials said that the tragedy of the Gulf Coast taught them to be forward-leaning, while the White House learned how tricky public relations can be

By Jennifer Loven  /  AP , WASHINGTON

Hurricane Katrina has many legacies for the Bush White House, none pleasant. One is the guarantee that as soon as disaster strikes in the US, President George W. Bush's every move is closely scrutinized to gauge the speed and tone of his response to the suffering.

This became clear yet again on Tuesday, as the enormity of the wildfires sweeping across southern California became apparent.

The White House reacted with what has become a familiar pattern: Bush dropped a few lines of sympathy and promised assistance into an already scheduled speech. Across the administration, aides volunteered as many facts and figures as possible about the federal contribution to the disaster response, a federal emergency to speed relief funding was declared in the middle of the night, and a presidential visit to the affected area was quickly arranged.

The White House's handling of Katrina in the days before it hit the US Gulf Coast in late August 2005 seemed set to follow this model. Bush and his aides issued repeated warnings to worried locals, conferred with officials in the region and promised Washington would do all it could to help.

But once the massive storm blew ashore, smashing Mississippi's coastal communities to sticks and submerging New Orleans in water, the federal response turned dismal.


Locals were left wanting for urgently needed supplies. Bush seemed disengaged from the crisis and then stumbled through initial appearances in the disaster zone aimed at correcting the impression. And some locals feel the White House's level of engagement in the Gulf Coast's continuing misery has not improved much in two years.

Katrina was a departure from Bush's handling of previous disasters.

Most notably, Bush endeared himself to the nation with his bullish but comforting stance after the 2001 terrorist attacks. He also was praised for his reaction when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing its seven-member crew. He was omnipresent in Florida when that state was hit by four hurricanes in 2004.

But all that was wiped out by Katrina, and the White House has struggled at times since to regain its disaster-response footing.

After a devastating tornado in Greensburg, Kansas, in May, the administration had to backtrack after initially appearing to blame the state's Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, for not asking quickly enough for help from the federal government.

Two months ago, Bush also reacted quickly to a deadly bridge collapse in Minnesota by scheduling a visit. But this followed an unseemly early emphasis from the White House on how fixing structural deficiencies is the state's responsibility.

On Tuesday, with the California blazes already affecting 1,554km2 and forcing almost 1 million people from their homes, the White House presented a picture of a heavily engaged administration.


White House press secretary Dana Perino came to her daily briefing armed with slides detailing Washington's contribution so far. It included 32 firefighting crews and dozens of fire engines from the Agriculture Department, 1,239 federal firefighters, 25,000 cots and 280,000 bottles of water.

"We send the help of the federal government," Bush declared during a speech otherwise devoted to the war on terror.

The president called a Cabinet meeting for Wednesday morning, to hear a first-hand report on what more Washington could do from Federal Emergency Management Administrator David Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The president had dispatched his two top federal disaster officials to California on Tuesday night, and they were to address their boss and the Cabinet via secure videoconference from the region.

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