Dubya Does Katrina

Updated April 14, 2006

The Bush administration's response to hurricane Katrina is a metaphor for the way it has managed the nation: assessing political implications before taking action, even when lives are at stake; making appointments based on cronyism and loyalty without regard to subject-matter experience; valuing corporate over individual welfare; taking any opportunity, including disaster and the misfortune of others to channel tax dollars to political associates, and to promote its right-wing agenda.

On a personal level, W's delayed and inappropriate response to the human tragedy of hurricane Katrina has offered glimpses of the spoiled rich kid behind the "good ol' boy" exterior. Throughout his term of office, folksy Texas-accented "Junior" has been largely able to avoid identification with his patrician roots -- the kind of thing that plagued "Poppy" in the 1992 election campaign when it appeared he didn't know the price of a gallon of milk.

But on September 2 in Mobile, LA, for example, having learned that former Senate majority leader Trent Lott's house had been destroyed by the hurricane, Bush remarked "Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch." The same day, in a particularly inappropriate quip, Bush opined about New Orleans, "I believe the town where I used to come from Houston, Texas, to enjoy myself — occasionally too much — will be that very same town, that it will be a better place to come to." His mother helped out with her comment after touring the Houston Astrodome, where more than 20,000 evacuees were being housed, "... [M]any of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

In a now infamous remark to Diane Sawyer on ABC's Good Morning America on September 1, 2005, Bush ventured that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." The statement rivaled Condoleezza Rice's assertion in a May 16, 2002 press conference that "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people ... would try to use an airplane as a missile...."

In Rice's case, of course, counterterrorism officials had been aware of terrorist plans to crash airliners into civilian targets since 1986. In Bush's case, the levee system, originally built by French authorities in the 18th century, like any levee system could be breached given the necessary weather conditions. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana congressional delegation has complained about underfinancing of the New Orleans flood protection infrastructure for years.

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

In the April 30, 2002 New York Times, science writer Jon Nordheimer wrote "Nothing's Easy for New Orleans Flood Control." The levee system, Nordheimer warned, was at risk from "a devastating flood that could threaten it if a storm surge from a powerful hurricane out of the Gulf of Mexico propelled a wall of water into the lake and the city."

Nordheimer described a scenario posited by Dr. Joseph N. Suhayda, director of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute at Louisiana State University.

a slow-moving Category 4 hurricane, with winds up to 155 miles an hour, or a Category 5 hurricane with even stronger winds could leave water 30 feet deep on this neighborhood street, which is more than five feet below sea level.

Skeptics dismissed the LSU projections as "scare tactics to help finance university research...."
despite the fact that in 1969, Camille, a Category 5 hurricane, killed scores of residents in Pass Christian, MS, 50 miles east of New Orleans.

As envisioned in LSUs disaster projections in 2002, breached levees and flooding would be only part of the problem. Draining the city would take weeks, as the city, trapped inside the levees, would simmer in a stew of "pollutants like sewage, landfill waste, chemicals and the bodies of drowned humans and animals."

Dr. Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the L.S.U. Hurricane Center, said that in a worst-case situation with incomplete evacuation ''we could have up to 45,000 killed and 400,000 trapped on roofs, with 700,000 evacuees who would now be homeless.''

Dr. van Heerden said it would take at least nine weeks to pump the city dry.

Ironically, New Orleans' growth over time as a port, industrial center, and tourist attraction has increased its vulnerability to the environment. The draining of marshes and expansion of the levee system has accelerated the natural sinking process that happens in any river delta area.

In 1998 Louisiana and the federal government approved a coastal restoration plan titled Coast 2050. The plan seeks to restore ecosystems in coastal Louisiana "in large part by utilizing the same natural forces that initially built the landscape."

The keys to Coastal 2050 are:

  • Restoring disappearing marshland by allowing a controlled flow of Mississippi river water back through the levees
  • Rebuilding the southern barrier islands with sand from Ship Shoal
  • Cutting a channel into the river delta ending farther north, so that the dredging of the southern end could stop; the delta mouth would then fill up with sediment, sustaining the barrier islands.

The main strategies of the plan are watershed management, such as river diversions and improved drainage and watershed structural repair, such as restoration of barrier islands. In the Pontchartrain Basin near New Orleans, we must close the [Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO)] navigation channel as soon as possible. Also, river diversions into swamps are needed to restore natural hydrology.

According to a 2003 article in Louisiana Sportsman magazine, "the MRGO is 76 miles long, and required the removal of 60 million more cubic yards of earth than did the Panama Canal. But where fourteen thousand vessels pass through the Panama Canal annually, generating $400 million in toll revenue, fewer than five ships a day (in 2003) traversed the MRGO, and it costs between $13 million and $37 million per year to keep it dredged.

The MRGO provided access:

... Not just to ships, however, which largely ignored it. It provided access to saltwater. The Gulf of Mexico now had direct access into some of the most productive marshes and wetlands in the entire United States.

In short order, it killed more than 11,000 acres of cypress swamps and turned over 19,000 acres of brackish marsh into saline marsh. Vegetation died. Wildlife died off or disappeared.

The freshwater marshes that once supported over a quarter million wintering ducks and provided an annual fur harvest of over 650,000 animals vanished due to saltwater intrusion.


The saline-rich water continues its deadly encroachment, further worsening an already incredible soil erosion rate. Every 24 minutes, Louisiana loses another acre of land. Nationally, the average beach subsides about 2 feet per year. Here in Louisiana, we lose upwards of 35 square miles per year. That’s larger than the size of Manhattan.

The wetlands and barrier islands served as natural buffers for New Orleans against ravages of sea and weather. Their progressive loss, as Mark Fischetti noted in the October 2001 Scientific American, "gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes."

The full price tag of the Coastal 2050 projects is $14 billion over 30 years. Jack C. Caldwell, head of the Louisiana Natural Resources Department in 2002, told the NY Times that Washington was "disinclined" to designate funding to protect the state's marshlands, or to share revenue from offshore oil production for that purpose.

Bush's 2002 budget also defunded FEMA's Project Impact -- a disaster preparedness campaign that since 1997 had distributed $25 million to communities annually, to be used for disaster "mitigation." Funds had typically been used by communities to promote home and small business preparedness, and transportation reliability in the event of a disaster.

In 2004 the Bush administration recommended funding Coastal 2050 only $2 billion over 10 years. Speaking recently on NBC's Meet the Press, author and journalist Mike Tidwell emphasized that "You can't just fix the levees in New Orleans. We now have to have a massive coastal restoration project where we get the water out of the Mississippi River in a controlled fashion toward the Barrier islands, restore the wetlands." The $14 billion Coastal 2050 pricetag, he pointed out, is the cost of the Big Dig in Boston Harbor, or two weeks of spending in Iraq.

For its New Orleans Hurricane Protection Project, which was "designed to protect residents between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River levee from surges in Lake Pontchartrain," the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested $11 million in 2004. The Bush administration allocated $3 million, which Congress increased to $5.5 million. In 2005 the Corps requested $22.5 million, the administration allocated $3.9 million, and Congress once again appropriated $5.5 million. "This was insufficient to fund new construction contracts," according to the Corps of Engineers' fact sheet for the project. "Seven new contracts are being delayed due to lack funds [sic]," the sheet states. "The President’s budget for fiscal year 2005 is $3.0 million. This will be insufficient to fund new construction contracts. We could spend $20 million if the funds were provided."

In June 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

According to the Newhouse News Service, "The Louisiana congressional delegation urged Congress earlier this year to dedicate a stream of federal money to Louisiana's coast, only to be opposed by the White House. ... In its budget, the Bush administration proposed a significant reduction in funding for southeast Louisiana's chief hurricane protection project. Bush proposed $10.4 million, a sixth of what local officials say they need."

Army Corps of Engineer officials involved in Louisiana wetland projects have also been sent to help rebuild Iraq. The director of the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study, Ed Theriot, was sent to Iraq in late 2003 or early 2004, to oversee the restoration of wetlands at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers -- a project code-named "Garden of Eden."


August 25

As the Katrina made landfall in southern Florida, Bush was vacationing (or not vacationing, depending on which White House statement you believe), at Crawford, TX. His press spokesman in Crawford, Trent Duffy, said at the midday "gaggle" that Bush had been for a bike ride. On an August 13 bike ride with journalists at the ranch Bush had said, "I think the people want the president to be in a position to make good, crisp decisions and to stay healthy. And part of my being is to be outside exercising. So I'm mindful of what goes on around me. On the other hand, I'm also mindful that I've got a life to live, and will do so."

Duffy also claimed that Bush was being informed regularly about Tropical Storm Katrina, but it was clear from Duffy's comments that the administration's focus was still on Florida.

August 26

At 9am EDT on August 26, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued an advisory that Katrina, then a Category 1 hurricane, was "getting better organized over the eastern Gulf of Mexico as it moves slowly away from south Florida...." At 4pm EDT, Louisiana Governor Blanco declared a state of emergency, "as hurricane Katrina poses an imminent threat, carrying severe storms, high winds, and torrential rain that may cause flooding and damage to private property and public facilities, and threaten the safety and security of the citizens of the state of Louisiana...."

Apparently in response, the White House declared a federal emergency, and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures.

Specifically, FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency. Debris removal and emergency protective measures, including direct Federal assistance, will be provided at 75 percent Federal funding.

For reasons unknown, the declaration did not include Louisiana parishes on the Gulf Coast.

At 11pm EDT a NOAA advisory warned that "Katrina is expected to become a major hurricane during the next day or two." Their probability assessment showed the center of the storm as most likely to pass within 65 nautical miles of the area between Gulfport, MS and New Orleans, LA before 8pm Monday.

August 27

By 5am on August 27th, NOAA had declared Katrina a Category 3 hurricane, with "some strengthening expected." Moving west, "a gradual turn toward the West-Northwest is expected during the next 24 hours."

Bush's radio address, taped in Crawford, congratulated the Sharon government on removing settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, and cheered on Iraqi efforts to establish a constitution.

By noon, St. Charles and Placquemine Parishes, and coastal regions of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana had ordered mandatory evacuations; a voluntary evacuation was called for the remainder of Jefferson Parish, and St. Bernard Parish recommended that residents evacuate. Louisiana Governor Blanco made a formal request request for federal assistance. (The document is dated August 28, but was published on Lexis/Nexis and delivered on August 27.)

At 5pm (CDT) New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin called for voluntary evacuation of the city, and had his legal staff review the liability the city would face if he called for mandatory evacuation. "Come the first break of light in the morning, you may have the first mandatory evacuation of New Orleans," Nagin told WWL-TV.

A computer model at the LSU Hurricane Center predicted a storm surge of as much as 16 feet in the MRGO, cresting over levees in eastern New Orleans, and flooding the city. The model also anticipated water overflowing levees from Lake Pontchartrain into St. Charles Parish and Kenner, near the New Orleans Airport.

The 10pm (CDT) NOAA advisory issued a hurricane warning "from Morgan City Louisiana eastward to the Alabama/Florida border, including the city of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected within the warning area within the next 24 hours. Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion."

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, called the governors of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans. "I just wanted to be able to go to sleep that night knowing that I did all I could do," Mayfield told the St. Petersburg Times. Mayfield subsequently confirmed to Newhouse News Service that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials had listened in on hurricane briefings in the days before Katrina made landfall. As reported in the Seattle Times, "the strength of the storm and the potential disaster it could bring were made clear during 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."

August 28

At 2am (EDT) on August 28, NOAA issued a "special discussion" warning that Katrina was strengthening, and could become a Category 5 hurricane (the most powerful on the Saffir-Simpson scale used to rate hurricane intensity), characterized as "devastating" and "catastrophic."

At 10:11am (CDT) the National Weather Service (NWS) issued an urgent message, warning that Katrina's intensity was likely to rival that of hurricane Camille, in 1969. The first words of the announcement were "Devastating damage expected."

The majority of industrial buildings will become non functional. Partial to complete wall and roof failure is expected. All wood framed low rising apartment buildings will be destroyed. Concrete block low rise apartments will sustain major damage, including some wall and roof failure.

High rise office and apartment buildings will sway dangerously, avfew to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out.

Airborne debris will be widespread and may include heavy items such as household appliances and even light vehicles. Sport utility vehicles and light trucks will be moved. The blown debris will create additional destruction. Persons pets and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death if struck.

Power outages will last for weeks as most power poles will be down and transformers destroyed. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.

The vast majority of native trees will be snapped or uprooted. Only the heartiest will remain standing but be totally defoliated. Few crops will remain. Livestock left exposed to the winds will be killed.

Governor Blanco sent a second letter to Bush detailing the parishes that would likely be affected, the specific assistance requested, and containing the statement:

I have determined that this incident will be of such severity and magnitude that effective response will be beyond the capabilities of the State and the affected local governments and that supplementary Federal assistance will be necessary.

Still in Crawford, TX, Bush was briefed by National Hurricane Center (NHC) director Mayfield by video conference. In a public statement at 11:30am (CDT) Bush reported Katrina's designation as a Category 5 hurricane, urging citizens to move to safe ground and "listen carefully to instructions provided by state and local officials." As recorded in the White House transcript, three paragraphs were devoted to Katrina, while the remaining twelve discussed Iraqi efforts to reach a consensus on a constitution.

In New Orleans, Mayor Nagin called for the first-ever mandatory evacuation of the city. "I wish I had better news, but we’re facing the storm most of us have feared," Nagin said. The more than 100,000 Orleanians who don't own cars were urged to seek rides with family, neighbors, and associated. Those who could not find rides were urged to get to the Superdome.

By evening 26,000 New Orleans residents sought refuge in the Superdome. The Louisiana National Guard delivered food and water to supply 15,000 people for three days. Victor Howell, of the Louisiana Capital Area Red Cross predicted that Katrina could require the single largest hurricane relief effort ever undertaken by the American Red Cross.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson offered Louisiana Governor Blanco help from his state's National Guard. Blanco accepted, but paperwork needed to mobilize the troops wouldn't arrive from Washington until September 2.

August 29

The 2am (CDT) NHC advisory reported:

... [P]otentially catastrophic hurricane Katrina beginning to turn northward toward southeastern Louisiana.... A hurricane warning is in effect for the north central Gulf Coast from Morgan City Louisiana eastward to the Alabama/Florida border including the city of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.... Coastal storm surge flooding of 18 to 22 feet above normal tide levels, locally as high as 28 feet, along with large and dangerous battering waves can be expected near and to the east of where the center makes landfall. Some levees in the greater New Orleans area could be overtopped.

Two hours later the update urged "Preparations to protect life and property should be completed this evening."

Katrina made landfall near Buras, LA, at 6:10am (CDT), as a Category 4 hurricane with 145 mph winds. About an hour later the Superdome lost power, and less than an hour after that the storm surge sent water over the Industrial Canal. A barge may also have broken loose and crashed into a floodwall, accelerating the flow of water.

At 8am (CDT) the NWS reported "large and extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane Katrina pounding southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi."

By late morning "[a] large section of the vital 17th Street Canal levee, where it connects to the brand new 'hurricane proof' Old Hammond Highway bridge, gave way..."

Roughly five hours after Katrina made landfall, FEMA director Michael Brown asked Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff to send 1,000 Homeland Security employees to the Gulf region. Among the duties enumerated in Brown's request was to "convey a positive image" about the government's response for victims. Brown suggested employees be sent within 48 hours -- the delay to be used to ensure adequate training, according to Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke. In another document, as reported by the Associated Press, "Brown urged fire and rescue departments outside Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi not to send trucks or emergency workers into disaster areas without an explicit request for help from state or local governments."

Bush issued a second disaster declaration for Louisiana, including the previously omitted parishes, and "ordered Federal aid to supplement State and local recovery efforts...." Then he flew to Arizona to celebrate Sen. John McCain's 69th birthday, posing for a photo-op with a blue and white cake. Later Bush spoke to 400 guests at the Pueblo El Mirage RV Resort and Country Club in nearby El Mirage. "It's not easy to have the presidential entourage come. I understand that," he quipped. "But at least my entourage was spiced up by the First Lady is traveling with me today." Mentioning the hurricane briefly in passing, Bush's speech and Q&A following focused on praising his administration's efforts at "improving" Medicare.

August 30

Bush delivered a speech at North Island Naval Air Base, in San Diego, CA, commemorating the 60th Anniversary of V-J day. The opening few sentences mentioned hurricane Katrina, while in the remaining approximately 40 paragraphs he tried to compare the war in Iraq to WWII and himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Franklin Roosevelt refused to accept that democracy was finished," Bush noted, attempting to draw a parallel to his own advocacy of a democratic government in Iraq. The speech also reprised a familiar administration theme, rhetorically connecting September 11, 2001 with the Iraq war.

Backstage after the speech Bush was presented with a guitar by country singer Mark Wills, and posed for a photo-op. An AP photo taken at about the same time showed volunteers rescuing a family from the roof of their car, trapped by floodwaters in Mississippi.

Associated Press reported and White House spokesman Scott McClellan subsequently confirmed that Bush would cut his five week vacation short by two days to return to Washington "to coordinate the response efforts" to hurricane Katrina. Reporters suggested that the action was largely symbolic.

Q This is more -- this is more symbolic. Cutting short his vacation is more symbolic because he can do all this from the ranch, right?

Mr. McClellan: No, I think -- no, I disagree. Like I said, this is one of the most devastating storms in our nation's history, and the President, after receiving a further update this morning, made the decision that he wanted to get back to D.C. and oversee the response efforts from there. This is going to -- there are many agencies involved in this -- in this response effort, and it's going to require a long and sustained effort on behalf of all the federal agencies working closely with state and local officials to help people recover from the destruction and devastation.

Q What is he unable to -- what is he unable to do in Crawford he could do --

Mr. McClellan: We'll talk to you all later. We've got to go. Thank you.

Meanwhile, a volunteer firefighter team from Houston with expertise repairing industrial facilities including oil rigs, was on their way to New Orleans when they were stopped at gunpoint by FEMA officers. A FEMA agent told one of the team members that they could not enter New Orleans "until it was secured by the National Guard." The firefighters decided to wait. Team members noted that many of the oil facilities that were their particular area of expertise were not even in the New Orleans area, and were unlikely to be the target of looters or other security problems. They continued to press FEMA officials, but by Thursday evening, September 1, some team members were so disheartened that they returned to Houston. The rest of the team remained until Saturday, September 3, and then returned, as well.

In the late afternoon or early evening, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff finally declared hurricane Katrina an "incident of national significance," some 36 hours after Katrina made landfall. As reported by Knight Ridder newspapers, "Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department." A memo obtained by Knight Ridder stated in part:

As you know, the President has established the 'White House Task Force on Hurricane Katrina Response.' He will meet with us tomorrow to launch this effort. The Department of Homeland Security, along with other Departments, will be part of the task force and will assist the Administration with its response to hurricane Katrina.

White House officials did not respond to questions as to:

  • Why Chertoff had delayed 36 hours before declaring an "incident of national significance."
  • Why Chertoff had not begun immediately to coordinate a federal response beginning on August 27 when the NHC predicted a devastating hurricane would hit the Gulf Coast within 48 hours.
  • Why Bush felt the need to appoint a task force separate from the DHS/FEMA response

"Chertoff's hesitation and Bush's creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders," Knight Ridder reporter Jonathan S. Landay noted.

That night Vice President Dick Cheney's office called the Southern Pines Electric Power Association to say that power needed to be restored to facilities of the Colonial Pipeline Co., based in Atlanta, GA, which operates a pipeline that supplies petroleum to the northeast. As reported by the Hattiesburg American (MS), "That order - to restart two power substations in Collins that serve Colonial Pipeline Co. - delayed efforts by at least 24 hours to restore power to two rural hospitals and a number of water systems in the Pine Belt."

August 31

On the morning of August 31, Bush participated in a videoconference from Crawford, TX. According to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, the conference reviewed options for evacuating the Superdome and what was being done to repair the breached levees. The "security situation" was also discussed, including the National Guard response to declarations of martial law (spelled "marshal" on the White House web site) in Mississippi and Louisiana. McClellan clarified that DHS Secretary Chertoff would direct response operations from Washington, FEMA director Mike Brown would direct response operations from the affected region, and Domestic Policy Council chief Claude Allen would coordinate the White House task force, which McClellan described as a "coordinating body."

Bush then flew back to Washington, passing over the disaster area on his way.

In Louisiana, Governor Blanco issued orders authorizing emergency occupation of hotel and motel rooms, and commandeering buses for use in relief efforts. She also ordered that all of New Orleans be evacuated, including the Superdome, and buses began leaving for the Houston Astrodome, 350 miles away. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered 1,500 police officers to cease search-and-rescue operations, and turn to stopping looters. CBS News reported that the governor requested more federal personnel to help with evacuation and rescue, so that the Louisiana National Guard could focus more on security issues.

"Once we get the 3,000 National Guardsmen here, we're locking this place down," Nagin said. "It's really difficult because my opinion of the looting is it started with people running out of food, and you can't really argue with that too much. Then it escalated to this kind of mass chaos where people are taking electronic stuff and all that." CBS correspondent Lee Cowan reported that in one instance, thieves had used a fork lift to break the window of a pharmacy, although the crowd that followed seemed to want mostly water and food. But looters were also reportedly stealing guns from stores including a Wal-Mart. New Orleans Police Capt. Marlon Defillo told CBS "We're multitasking right now. Rescue, recovery, stabilization of looting, we're trying to feed the hungry."

Like the Houston firefighters, an urban rescue team from Vancouver, BC, whose assistance was requested by officials in Louisiana, was blocked from entering Louisiana because of security concerns. The team of 32 included medical, engineering, and swift-water rescue specialists.

At 5:11pm (EDT) Bush read a statement from the White House Rose Garden, outlining short term recovery efforts. He listed the federal proprieties as:

  1. Saving lives.
  2. Sustaining lives.
  3. Comprehensive recovery.

In an interview with the Chicago Daily Herald, House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert questioned whether rebuilding New Orleans was worth possibly billions of federal dollars, because the low-lying city would remain a vulnerable hurricane target even after clean up. "It doesn't make sense to me," Hastert said, "And it’s a question that certainly we should ask." On hearing Hastert's statement, a spokeswoman for New Orleans congressman William Jefferson burst into tears.

September 1

Less than a day after saying that spending billions to rebuild New Orleans "doesn't make sense," Majority Leader Hastert vowed not to rest until the city was rebuilt.

I will not rest until everyone that has been affected by this disaster has been given proper assistance. Tomorrow, the House will meet in a special emergency session to pass legislation that will send much-needed dollars to aid the victims and rebuild devastated areas.

"I think the Speaker realizes, like we all do, that it’s unimaginable not to have New Orleans as a part of the American scene," Congressman Jefferson told the Chicago Daily Herald, adding that the political will to strengthen the New Orleans levee system had been previously lacking in Washington.

That afternoon the government finally requested help from the Air Transport Association in evacuating victims.

Bush's poll numbers were already at an all-time low after his unprecedented five-week vacation, rising gas prices, and continuing chaos and death in Iraq. Now the mainstream media began to compare his ineffectual response to the hurricane disaster to his 20 minutes of inaction reading My Pet Goat after hearing reports of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. This time, though, as the NY Times David Sanger noted, "

... [U]nlike 2001, when Mr. Bush was freshly elected and there was little question that the response would include a military strike, Mr. Bush confronts this disaster with his political capital depleted by the war in Iraq.

Even before hurricane Katrina, governors were beginning to question whether National Guard units stretched to the breaking point by service in Iraq would be available for domestic emergencies. Those concerns have now been amplified by scenes of looting and disorder. There is also the added question of whether the Department of Homeland Security, designed primarily to fight terrorism, can cope with what Mr. Bush called Wednesday 'one of the worst natural disasters in our country's history.

On ABC's Good Morning America, anchor Diane Sawyer questioned Bush about federal response to the disaster:

Sawyer: ... [G]iven the fact that everyone anticipated a hurricane five, a possible hurricane five hitting shore, are you satisfied with the pace at which [aid] is arriving? And which it was planned to arrive?

Bush: Well, I fully understand people wanting things to have happened yesterday. I mean, I understand the anxiety of people on the ground. I can imagine -- I just can't imagine what it is like to be waving a sign saying 'come and get me now'. So there is frustration. But I want people to know there is a lot of help coming.

I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will.

Appearing on NPR's All Things Considered, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff attempted to dismiss reports of people at the New Orleans convention center without food and water as "rumor or ... someone's anecdotal version of something." When asked directly about reports on CNN and NPR, Chertoff responded "I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food or water."

Police Chief Eddie Compass said he sent 88 officers to attempt to restore order at the convention center, but they were beaten back by the crowd. "We have individuals who are getting raped, we have individuals who are getting beaten," Compass told the Associated press. "Tourists are walking in that direction and they are getting preyed upon."

On ABC's Nightline Ted Koppel summarized the situation:

Federal officials insist that everything possible is being done as quickly as possible to help those in need. Local officials and reporters on the scene describe an absence of leadership, insufficient aid and seething desperate crowds who are out of food, out of water and long out of patience.

The situation at the convention center was one area of disagreement. Mayor Nagin spoke of 15 to 25,000 people at the center, with supplies running out. FEMA director Mike Brown had said previously that the number was 5,000 and that food was being delivered to them. The Mayor issued "a desperate SOS" over the crisis at the convention center, saying that the city was running out of food, buses, and emergency supplies.

Koppel: One of you is wrong. It's either 5,000 or 15,000. Do you know?

FEMA director Brown: Actually, I have sent General Honore of the First Army to find out exactly the truth of what's down there because we first learned of the convention center, we, we being the Federal government, today. And that he says the number's around 25,000.

Koppel: Okay. So, it, it sounds as though the mayor, who said 15 to 25,000, was closer in touch. I've heard you say ...

Brown: Yeah.

Koppel: ... during course of this evening on a number of interviews you just found out about it today. Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today.

Brown: We learned about it factually today that that what existed.


Koppel: ... But here we are, essentially five days after the storm hit, and you're talking about what's going to happen in the next couple of days. You guys do war games. You have gamed out what is going to happen. In recent months, after a force three or a force four or a force five hurricane, to say, as the president did, well, we didn't know the dams were gonna break or we didn't know that the levees were going to, were going to break, is factually true, of course, you didn't know it. But you could have assumed it. You could have made preparations for what would happen in the event that. You knew it was going to be a force five storm that was gonna hit in that region. Why didn't you?

Brown: Ted, we had people pre-positioned to move in immediately, and what happened, which is unusual in this disaster, there's two things. First and foremost, the disaster continued long after hurricane Katrina had moved on. When the levees did break, we were already moving in and then had to move back out. Then I think the other thing that really caught me by surprise was the fact that there were so many people, and I'm not laying blame, but either chose not to evacuate or could not evacuate. And as we began to do the evacuations from the Superdome, all of a sudden, literally thousands of other people started showing up in other places, and we were not prepared for that....

Koppel: Mr. Brown, some of these people are dead. They're beyond your help. Some of these people that 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, 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 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....

Koppel: Your state counterpart, Terry Ebbert, the head of Emergency Operations in Louisiana says, "This is a national emergency." "This is a national disgrace. FEMA," he said, "has been there three days, yet there is no command and control. We send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the City of New Orleans."

Brown: Ted, you know, with all due respect to him, we have convoys, we're feeding people. The people in the convention center are being fed, the people on the bridges are being provided with water ...

Koppel:With all due respect, sir, the people, the people in the convention center are not being fed. Our reporters ...

Brown: I misspoke, the people in the, the people in the Superdome. I'm sorry, you're absolutely correct. We're getting the supplies to the convention center now. But the people in the Superdome have been being fed, that supply chain has been working, and that has been moving along and those evacuations have been continuous.

Koppel: But the people of New Orleans were told to go to the convention center. They went there in the belief that supplies would be waiting for them when they got there.

Brown:Well, I don't know who made that promise to them, Ted, but our job was to get those supplies in there once we realized that the Federal government was gonna be asked to come in and do that, and that's exactly what we did.

Koppel:All right, Mr. Brown, again, you know, forgive me for, for beating up on you there, but you're the only guy from the Federal government these days who's coming out to take your medicine. So I thank you for doing that, and I really hope you're gonna be able to help those people because you still have, trust me, you have got thousands of people at the convention center tonight who need your help desperately.

CNN correspondent Rick Sanchez reported that a swift-water rescue unit from California had saved hundreds of people in a single day, but with thousands more needing their assistance had been stopped by FEMA because of alleged security concerns.

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle reported that Dick Cheney's former firm, Halliburton had been hired by the Navy "to restore electric power, repair roofs and remove debris" at three Mississippi naval facilities. The Chronicle also reported that Halliburton's KBR subsidiary would conduct damage assessments of other installations in New Orleans, as soon as it was safe to do so.

September 2

The National Guard finally arrived in New Orleans. Caravans of troop vehicles and supply trucks appeared at the New Orleans convention center and Superdome. A commander warned that evacuation might still be delayed, because the first priority was to deliver food and water.

The City of Gretna Police department closed the major route west out of New Orleans, preventing thousands of people from evacuating the city on foot. "We shut down the bridge," Arthur Lawson, chief of the City of Gretna Police Department, told United Press International, adding that his jurisdiction was "a closed and secure location." "There was no food, water or shelter" in Gretna City, Lawson said. "We did not have the wherewithal to deal with these people. If we had opened the bridge, our city would have looked like New Orleans does now: looted, burned and pillaged."

In a statement at the Mobile, AL airport, Bush joked about the crisis. He also praised the efforts of FEMA and Mike Brown. "I want to thank you all for -- and, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA Director is working 24 -- they're working 24 hours a day."

Amid widespread complaints that the government's response to Katrina had been inadequate, Congress approved a $10.5 billion aid package for the region. Sen. Robert Wexler of Florida noted that "Last year, when the president's election was in question, his response to the hurricanes in the swing state of Florida was tremendously fast. Where was he in the immediate aftermath for the Gulf Coast? Where were the trucks of food?" Majority Leader Hastert, meanwhile, attended a fundraiser for Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana.

The Beginning Political Aftermath

Over the weekend of September 3rd, the White House launched its political disaster response. Directed by chief political adviser Karl Rove, and Communications Director Dan Bartlett, the initial strategy was for administration officials to avoid discussions of federal failures, and to talk instead about what was being done now. DHS Secretary Chertoff provided an example of that approach in his September 4 appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. "We will have time to go back and do an after-action report, but the time right now is to look at what the enormous tasks ahead are," Chertoff said.

Rove reportedly told Republicans not to respond to Democratic attacks on the administration response to Katrina, in an effort to avoid appearing blatantly political at a time when Bush was politically weak.

Typical of other Rove political operations, administration officials also sought to shift blame onto Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco, both Democrats. "The way that emergency operations act under the law is the responsibility and the power, the authority, to order an evacuation rests with state and local officials," Chertoff said on NBC. "The federal government comes in and supports those officials."

The talking points were repeated throughout the day in harsher language by other Republicans. In an apparently coordinated message,conservative commentators claimed that federal assistance did not arrive sooner in Louisiana because state authorities had not requested it. This had been contradicted by Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. In a Department of Defense (DOD) briefing on September 1, he acknowledged that the process of providing federal military assistance to Louisiana and Mississippi began with the request from the governors "over Friday and Saturday" (August 26 and 27).

Reports continued to emerge of rescue efforts blocked by FEMA. Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard reported on Meet the Press that FEMA had turned back truckloads of water headed for his parish, 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel delivered by boat, and had cut his emergency communication lines to install their own. The Chicago Tribune reported that the USS Bataan, designed to support Marine amphibious assaults, and equipped with hospital beds and facilities for making up to 100,000 gallons of drinking water a day, had been in the region since before the hurricane hit, but had not been "fully utilized" by "federal authorities."

Bush announced that he would lead an investigation into his administration's response to the Katrina disaster. In a similar spirit, at an event to which no Democrats were invited, Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, and House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert announced that they would conduct a bipartisan investigation; Democrats refuse to appoint any members of the panel.

On September 8, Bush issued an executive order exempting contractors in the hurricane disaster area from the Davis-Bacon act, which requires federal contractors to pay at least the prevailing wage in the area where they are working.

FEMA director Brown resigned on September 12, three days after DHS Secretary Chertoff recalled him to Washington, and replaced him as point person for relief efforts in the Gulf region.

At a news conference with Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, on September 13, Bush said "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility." This was widely reported as the first time Bush had admitted making a mistake, although some disputed that he had done so on this occasion, either.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll published on September 13 found that Bush's approval rating had dropped to 42 percent, down 3 points since the hurricane made landfall. Two days later Bush delivered what was promoted as a "major speech" on the Katrina disaster. Dan Balz of the Washington Post echoed the sentiment of many observers when he wrote, "The main text of President Bush's nationally televised address last night was the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but the clear subtext was the rebuilding of a presidency that is now at its lowest point ever...."

The policies Bush outlined last night bear the distinctive stamp of a conservative president, a hallmark of an executive who has never shrunk from seeking to implement a right-leaning agenda even in the face of a divided country. They are long on tax relief and business grants and loans, and focused on entrepreneurial ideas. Bush already has drawn fire from Democrats for suspending the law that requires contractors to pay prevailing wages on federal projects in the regions, and there will be a battle over the proposal to provide private and parochial school vouchers to children of displaced families.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, has proposed lifting environmental regulations, eliminating capital gains taxes and permitting private ownership of public school buildings in the disaster area.

In an interview with ABC News "This Week," former President Bill Clinton linked the administration's response to the hurricane disaster with it's inherent elitism. "...[Y]ou can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up," he said. The storm, Clinton suggested, highlighted class divisions in the country that often had racial implications.

It's like when they issued the evacuation order. That affects poor people differently. A lot of them in New Orleans didn't have cars. A lot of them who had cars had kinfolk they had to take care of. They didn't have cars, so they couldn't take them out.

This is a matter of public policy. And whether it's race-based or not, if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that's a consequence of the action made. That's what they did in the 80's; that's what they've done in this decade....

The Perils of Creating Your Own Reality

In his 2004 NY Times essay "Without a Doubt," journalist Ron Suskind reported a testy exchange with a Bush advisor who dismissed Suskind's observations because he was a member of "what we call the 'reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'" "We're an empire now," the advisor said, "and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

It is that mode of thinking, in which ideology precedes perception, that leads Bush and his administration to support creationism, to laud the efficacy of "abstinence only" sex education, and despite overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, to argue that there is insufficient evidence that human activity causes global warming. The latter may have a direct bearing on the severity of hurricanes, and possibly their frequency.

2003 and 2004 marked the highest two-year totals ever recorded for overall hurricane activity in the North Atlantic. The increase has coincided with a rise in the earth's surface temperature, aided by greenhouse gases that act as insulation, causing the sun's heat to warm the sea, land, and air, rather than being radiated into space.

A key factor in the intensity of hurricanes is the difference between the sea surface and the air above the storm. The warmer the sea, the bigger the differential, and the more energy potentially available to the storm. In a NOAA simulation, the frequency of Category 5 hurricanes roughly tripled when the effects of climate change due to human activity were factored in.

The current evidence strongly suggests that:

(a) hurricanes tend to become more destructive as ocean temperatures rise, and

(b) an unchecked rise in greenhouse gas concentrations will very likely increase ocean temperatures further, ultimately overwhelming any natural oscillations.

Scenarios for future global warming show tropical [sea surface temperatures] rising by a few degrees, not just tenths of a degree.... That is the important message from science. What we need to discuss is not what caused Katrina, but the likely hood that global warming will make hurricanes even worse in future.

As of this writing, tropical storm Rita is poised to cross Florida, and could continue on a path similar to Katrina's.


Hurricane Rita grew into the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, although it diminished somewhat and was Category 3 when it made landfall at the Texas-Louisiana border on September 24.

On September 26, Mike Brown told congressional investigators that he was still being paid by FEMA as a consultant to help with the investigation of what went wrong while he was leading FEMA's response to hurricane Katrina. He testified before a House committee on September 27.

FEMA announced that, for the first time, it would make large-scale payments to religious groups for their efforts in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

On or about September 1, 2005, FEMA agreed to pay Carnival Cruise Lines $236 million to use three ships to house evacuees for six months. The ships' combined capacity is 7,116, making the per-evacuee coast $1,275 a week, or more than twice the cost of a week-long cruise to the Caribbean. As of September 28 the ships were more than half empty.

Having contracted for temporary housing for more than 120,000 families, as of September 30, 2005 FEMA has placed only 109.

Knight Ridder papers reported that the government is paying as much as 10 times the retail cost of temporary roof repair.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, charged in a letter to the Homeland Security Department's inspector general that the government is significantly overpaying for portable classrooms.

A defense department report obtained by The Independent (UK) concludes that the war in Iraq was a contributing factor in limiting the relief effort in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

On October 6, In an apparent response to criticism, FEMA announced that it would seek bids on $400 million worth of contracts originally awarded with no competition.

FEMA Broke Its Promise on Housing, Houston Mayor Says (NY Times, November 17, 2005)

Louisiana released 100,000 pages of communications concerning the stat's response to Katrina. (NY Times, December 3, 2005)

The New York Times reported that, contrary to Bush's statements, the Department of Homeland Security warned the White House of potential levee breaches 29 hours before Katrina reached New Orleans. (January 24, 2006)

White House Declines to Provide Storm Papers (New York Times, January 25, 2006)

Congressional investigators learned that the White House Knew of Levee's Failure on Night of Storm and former FEMA director Michael Brown at a Senate hearing, February 10, 2006.

Associated Press obtained copies and transcripts of videos documenting that Bush and the administration were
warned about potential devastation from Katrina, including the breach of levees, days before Bush's statement that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." (March 2, 2006)

The Washington Post reported on "an array of government audits and outside analysts" concluding that FEMA's "hastily improvised" housing aid program "has produced vast sums of waste and misspent funds." (April 14, 2006)


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