Almost one-third of Louisiana Republicans blame President Obama for the slow and largely ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast, Aug. 31, 2005. More than 1,800 were killed in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; estimates of property damage exceeded $100 billion.
Public Policy Polling reveals that 29 percent of the state’s Republicans blame Obama. Only 28 percent blame George W. Bush. The rest, according to the poll, don’t know who to blame. The disaster occurred in the first year of George W. Bush’s second term. Barack Obama did not become president until more than three years later
While the Bush–Cheney administration was embroiled in Iraq and developing all kinds of plans to deal with foreign terrorists, it failed to keep the homeland safe—for the second time, the first being 9/11 itself. Natural disasters have been responsible for significantly more injuries, deaths, and property damage than all terrorist attacks, both past and projected.
More than a year before Katrina hit, we had written our first article about the probability that the U.S. would be unable to provide a quick response to any natural disaster of great magnitude. We concluded “While we can’t put natural disasters into the same category as an al-Qaeda attack, they both encompass a fear of imminent danger. Death and destruction by a Category 3/4 hurricane is more imminent than an attack by Iraq ever was—and could leave more death and destruction than 9/11. Neither our home nor our land is secure.”
Our evidence to support that conclusion included:
● The needless war in Iraq had been draining U.S. funds, personnel, and supplies that could have been needed for disaster response.
Louisiana politicians and the Army Corps of Engineers had requested funds to repair and upgrade the levees, but were denied. Under the Bill Clinton Administration, the Corps of Engineers spent about $500 million to upgrade the levee system and to build pumping stations. The Category 3 hurricane could have been stopped by the existing levees if they hadn’t been weakened by political neglect. The water did not spill over the top, but, the force of the winds and water broke through the levees, causing the major destruction. The improvements to the levee system couldn’t be completed by the Corps because funds for the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project were diverted to support the war in Iraq.
National Guard troops, which normally would have been a front-line defense to help the people and protect property, were mobilized for Iraq. Several senior Guard officers told us they were already operating “short-handed” because of the war; more than one-third of the Guard was in Iraq when Katrina hit. Most of the Guard’s trucks, bulldozers, and heavy equipment were in Iraq. Also in the Iraqi desert were deep water recovery vehicles.
● FEMA was being decimated by politics and budget cuts.
Both Bush and Cheney believed that disaster assistance should be primarily handled by private assistance; they believed the Red Cross, social service agencies, and several major religious organizations, including the Salvation Army, could and should be able to respond, as they always had. Because of political bias, the administration not only cut FEMA’s budget but also transferred funding. Between 2003 and 2005, Bush moved $800 million from FEMA into the War in Iraq.
For the head of FEMA, Bush installed a campaign buddy, Michael D. Brown, who had no experience in emergency management, but had spent 11 years as commissioner for judges and stewards of the International Arabian Horse Association (IAHA). In later articles, we pointed out that at the time Katrina hit, a morale crisis was smothering the agency; political cronies were moving into the agency; experienced career staffers were leaving. Seven of the 10 regions were staffed with interim directors. FEMA, essentially, was being decimated through willful negligence.
After Katrina hit, we analyzed and determined:
● The wetlands, a natural protection, didn’t protect the Gulf Coast because of administration policies that allowed this destruction, the result of expanded drilling.
● The President and his senior staff were slow in personally responding. He, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were on vacation. Rumsfeld, who stayed in San Diego to attend a baseball game, could have ordered a full military response. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was involved in fund-raising.
● Inter-agency communications, as had been the case four years earlier at 9/11, was still a jumble, with agencies having their own guarded frequencies and unable to communicate with other agencies.
● local and state politicians hadn’t adequately prepared for a disaster. There were weak plans for shelter and evacuation. Conservatives placed most of the blame upon the local and state politicians, many of them Democrats. The conservatives, opposed to big government, argued the local and state should have carried the load. However, our analysis was that although there were local problems, the burden should have been on the federal government because Katrina was a multi-state disaster, and the states didn’t have the personnel and resources to effectively respond to a catastrophic disaster.
There was a lot more we learned, and reported upon.
But one thing we didn’t report is the role of Barack Obama. We had never heard of him in 2005.
Rosemary R. Brasch was a Red Cross family service specialist whose services included deployment in response to floods in Louisiana and 9/11. Walter M. Brasch is author of ‘Unacceptable’: America’s Response to Hurricane Katrina.