The Lie of the Storm
The Lie of the Storm
Television images can be misleading, but not in the case of the shadowy video that showed President Bush sitting quietly in Texas as he heard that Hurricane Katrina, bearing down on the Gulf Coast, was going to be ''the Big One." Dressed in a suit coat even though he was on vacation, he looked like a president but did not act like one. Despite the warning on Sunday, Aug. 28, Bush let several crucial days slip by before he rallied the resources of the federal government to deal with this epochal disaster.
Perhaps he was lulled by the take-charge attitude of Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who, the video shows, accurately gauged the magnitude of the storm and told his subordinates to do whatever was necessary: ''I'll figure out some way to justify it," he said. ''Just let them yell at me." FEMA, however, didn't have resources to cope with a disaster of this magnitude. It would have required an immediate massive response by the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and only the president could have ordered these bureaucracies into action.
Instead, it was business as usual when the storm struck on Monday, Aug. 29, and for a day or two afterward. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff attended a conference on bird flu in Atlanta. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld toured military bases in California on Monday and the next day joined President Bush in San Diego for a ceremony commemorating the end of World War II.
Bush considers himself a delegator, a character trait that was a weakness in this crisis. Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff Andrew Card were on vacation; the response wasn't coordinated until the full staff returned to duty later in the week. A hands-on president, Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson, for example, would have done better.
Bush was further hampered by his decision, made after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to focus his administration on the war against terrorism. In a speech at the San Diego ceremony he implicitly criticized Clinton for failing to respond to attacks in the 1990s. By fixating on his own war, Bush neglected the threat to America from wind and water.
Three days after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Bush went on television to defend his handling of the crisis, saying: ''I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." That may be technically true. The weather specialist who delivered part of the video briefing only expected some water to wash over the levees, but cautioned that worse was possible. Bush did make one misstatement during the video. ''I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared," he said. But the Bush administration was not. History will judge him harshly for this failure.