Bush's Cavalier Attitude
Contributed To Magnitude
Of Hurricane Disaster

By John Hanchette
Niagara Falls Reporter
Olean, NY - Scientists might well start researching the question: Are questionable reactions to foreign crises, wars, hurricanes and the economy genetic?
The degree to which George W. Bush's presidency is mirroring his father's, and magnifying it, seems to indicate the answer is a ringing YES.
While Dubya's dad tended to respond a bit more rapidly when huge crises developed for the country -- and usually more prudently -- he sometimes displayed the same lack of focus, concentration and productive followup that his son is now getting torched for by citizens and media alike.
This writer was with Bush the Elder in the last week of August 1992, covering the current president's father in New England while he campaigned for re-election. When an aide informed him of the devastating effect of Hurricane Andrew, which had just hit south Florida, that president quickly canceled all political appearances and flew directly to the struggling state. But while he offered tsk-tsk bromides and isn't-this-awfuls, the father was roundly criticized for the delay that surrounded provision of meaningful federal aid to the 300 square miles of almost total devastation.
As the mammoth Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans last week, Bush the Younger doubled that lame performance in spades. He gave the initial appearance of not caring at all. Where are his political minders? Even as the monster storm hit, Bush the son was counseling victims from afar to just tough it out -- and was photographed happily strumming a guitar provided to him by country star Mark Wills at a meaningless San Diego event before flying back to his ranch. It could only have been worse in terms of bad symbolic publicity if Dubya had been handed Nero's fiddle to play.
Even as he started to react, Dubya failed to look after important details. His secretary of state was a noted no-show at the first Cabinet meeting called to respond to Katrina. The vacationing Condoleezza Rice -- a native of the similarly hard-hit Alabama -- was caught by vitriolic New York media shopping for thousand-dollar shoes at Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue, and later laughing to tears while attending a Monty Python comedy on Broadway.
There were other blunders in terms of federal response imagery. The newspaper trade publication "Editor and Publisher" noted that in Biloxi, Miss. -- also devastated by Katrina -- survivor victims of the storm who were gathered in a junior high school shelter waiting for help and food and medicine could look across the road and watch Air Force personnel performing calisthenics and playing basketball. Transportation was no excuse there. The potential responders could have aided the victims with a five-minute stroll.
When local reporters asked the base brass why they weren't helping relief efforts instead of following physical training routine, they were told picking up beach litter would be pointless at this juncture of the calamity.
Andrew was a Force Five storm that eventually totaled $43 billion in damage, killed 41 residents directly, boosted unemployment in south Florida to 14 percent, and wiped out almost 10 percent of Florida agriculture. Like Katrina, it veered northwest, gathered moisture and force over the warm Gulf of Mexico, and then lashed north to hit Louisiana and cause another couple of billion dollars' worth of damage. Bush the Elder eventually responded with massive assistance -- almost 30,000 military personnel, and enough tents and food for a like number of victims.
Ironically, in mid-August of last year, in the midst of his campaign for re-election, Bush the Younger toured Florida with his brother-governor Jeb -- two days after Hurricane Charley ripped Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte -- and commented on the slow response for which their father was criticized a dozen years before.
"That was then, this is now," said President George W. Bush. "The lesson is, respond quickly." Words that are surely ringing in Dubya's ears.
Granted, Dubya is not the well-meaning decision-maker who disastrously sent 25,000-plus poor souls to huddle out Katrina in the Superdome without food, drinking water, medicine, cots or workable toilets. But the slow federal response -- which even Dubya now acknowledges was "not enough" and "not acceptable"Ð allowed near riotous conditions in that ruined facility, lack of control over widespread looting, and cadavers to pile up all over a beautiful, intriguing town that was a national cultural center.
New Orleans, now, is likely to become a metaphor for deadly squalor for at least a decade.
And many Louisiana victims and leaders alike were voluble in noting their state's National Guard couldn't respond effectively because a large portion of it is currently serving in Iraq in Dubya's war.
The president even got hammered by his own prominent Republican buddies. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked an extremely pertinent question: "If we can't respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we're prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?"
GOP Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts -- likely to run for the White House himself one fine day -- termed the federal response to Katrina "an embarrassment."
Andrew and Katrina shared another dangerous syndrome. Both were accompanied by endless dithering commentary and prediction over whether they would turn out to be Force Five or Force Four hurricanes. Andrew as initially termed the latter but was reclassified two years later as a Five. Katrina was a Five at first, then downgraded to a Four, but will probably be reclassified, and is certainly a Five in the minds of Gulf Coast victims.
The point is, all this weather warning by numbers is distracting babble.
Hurricanes -- especially in our era of global warming -- are now like taxes: They come every year, and they pack a wallop. They are highly predictable. And, like taxes, they seem to be getting nastier and more voluminous. The size is not the feature that should be concentrated upon. The place where they are likely to come ashore is the thing federal officials should be giving attention -- even as the storms linger over the seas.
It has been well-known to the Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies for decades that even a hurricane smaller than Katrina would be catastrophic if it hit New Orleans directly. That poor, splendid city, in fact, ranked third on most national security lists as the site of a potential domestic catastrophe -- man-made, terrorist-triggered, or by celestial germination.
True, the Route 10 evacuation as Katrina built up force in the Gulf of Mexico saved thousands of lives, but it was locally inspired by officials who grew up realizing the bowl-shaped city was 20 feet below surrounding river and lake water levels.
When two flood walls and a levee busted out, the worst-case scenario was at hand. The Corps of Engineers and other agencies for years had requested heavy funding necessary to shore them up. There were always other priorities.
Dubya's administration is finally responding to Katrina -- 11,000 active duty troops and 21,000 National Guard members on the ground, a $10.5 billion disaster aid and rebuilding package hurried through Congress and signed by the president, a release of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, personal visits that left him stunned by the wreckage that completely destroyed wide coastal areas in four Gulf states.
But Dubya is vulnerable to the same laissez-faire attitude that seemed to affect his father in 1992, when Bush the Elder enjoyed an incredible 90 percent favorable job approval rating as he began his try for re-election, then squandered it as the economy withered. Bill Clinton's campaign guru James Carville knew the weak spot, and hammered home the Arkansan's main strategy with a memorable slogan: "It's the Economy, Stupid!" By the time Election Day arrived, Bush the Father was a flat-liner and worried Americans ushered in the Clinton Years.
Dubya, granted, has noted publicly that Katrina "has disrupted the capacity to make gasoline and distribute gasoline" and is aware that more than 700 oil rigs and drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico are out of business for months -- shutting down 30 percent of domestic crude production and 23 percent of natural gas provision. He is aware the production at 18 vital refineries in Gulf states has been curtailed or stopped altogether. But he still seems to shrug that off, optimistically predicting it won't derail the national economy.
That seems a forlorn hope, with crude oil headed for a possible $100-a-barrel price, and Big Oil continuing to gouge the motorist for obscene record profits. Consumers are already cutting back drastically, as prices rise because the cost of getting goods to market now zooms from the rocketing cost of transportation.
The sad prediction here is that Bush will continue frittering away billions on Iraq while we are headed for another major recession. And all the positive babble and optimistic speechifying won't stop it.



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