Is Oil Spill becoming Obama’s Katrina?
The hurricane that drowned New Orleans and cast George W. Bush as out of touch swept across the Gulf Coast nearly five years ago. Now, as oil laps ashore in the very same region, local officials are asking: Is there another government-Gulf Coast disconnect? Is BP’s oil spill becoming this president‘s Katrina
I think that the answer to this question is no, if the question means a moment in time that will be emblematic of the Obama presidency was for Bush’s–and whether one thinks it is fair or not, there is no denying that the handling of Katrina is a key negative moment in narrative of the Bush presidency. Some basic evidence of this fact is the fact that “Heckuva job, Brownie” entered the lexicon and it has a very negative connotation.
Setting Bush aside for a moment (I will come back to Bush and Katrina below), there are some key reasons why the oil spill will not for Obama what Katrina was for Bush.’
- The Deaths. The loss of human life will not be the same. Yes, people died when the Deepwater Horizons platform exploded and sank, but Katrina and its aftermath killed almost 2,000 people. That fact alone brought a different kind of focus on the events of 2005 than will the events of this years.
- Property Damage. Something like 80% of New Orleans flooded when the levees broke. NOLA still isn’t what it once was.
- Refugees. There were thousands upon thousands of persons displaced by the flooding of New Orleans.
- TELEVISION. The caps are quite deliberate. We watched Katrina unfold on television. We saw people on their roofs and refugees at the Convention Center and elsewhere. It was a mutli-day reality show of the worst and most dramatic kind. That ramped up the political stakes in a way that the oil spill cannot, significant as it may be.
- Speed. As per the above, the Katrina tragedy unfolded quickly and was very easy to relate to. The damage that the oil spill will leave its wake (ecosystems destroyed, fishermen out of jobs, etc.) will be a slow-moving, almost invisible event. Yes, the evening news can do human interest stories about the shrimpers who are unemployed after generations in the business, but it will never have the exact same impact that the Katrina damage in NOLA had.
- Uniqueness. This is basically a sui generis event. Yes, we have had oil spills before, but never like this. We don’t even know what to expect the government to do. We have, however, had natural disasters (especially hurricanes and floods) before, so have a set of expectations. While the expectations the public had of the Bush administration may have been unfair given the magnitude if the disaster, they is no doubt that there were expectations. With the current event I am not sure that most people have any specific pre-established expectations. This matters.
- Someone to Blame. British Petroleum and their corporate partner (including Halliburton) are available to take some of the heat.
- Lack of Specific Role for Feds. While the US government has regulatory power over the process, they were no directly responsible for the platform or the well. However, in New Orleans the Army Corps of Engineers (part of the federal government) had a very specific role in maintaining the levees that failed in the aftermath of Katrina. Further, the federal government has a Department of Homeland Security that contains the Federal Emergency Management Agency which is supposed to deal with natural disasters. There is no Oil Spill Management Agency to look to and blame in this case.
Now, none of this is to say Obama won’t take political heat for the federal government’s handling of the situation, but it won’t be the same as Katrina was for Bush.
When we think back to 2005, I think that some have let their memories fade on some of the more remarkable examples of ineptitude on the part of the Bush administration. Not, by the way, that I think it is fair to “blame Bush for Katrina”—but rather it is fair to note that the Bush administration was not exactly at its shining best at that point in time. It should also be noted that whatever benefit of the doubt that Bush had with the public had started to be exhausted over the topic of Iraq at about the time Katrina hit.
I think more than anything, Bush’s problems with Katrina stems from its slow-motion response to things we all saw in TV. To wit:
Mr. Brown stunned several national television interviewers on Sept. 1 with the admission that he did not know about the 20,000 evacuees at the convention center in New Orleans until 24 hours after it was featured in news reports.1
On Thursday night, Michael D. Brown, the federal government’s point man for managing the response to Hurricane Katrina, made a remarkable confession on live television.
Speaking of the thousands stranded at the convention center in New Orleans without food or water, Mr. Brown said that his agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had just learned of their plight.
CNN’s Paula Zahn was incredulous. “Sir,” she said, “you aren’t just telling me you just learned that the folks at the convention center didn’t have food and water until today, are you? You had no idea they were completely cut off?”
“Paula,” Mr. Brown replied unequivocally, “the federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today.”
The comment symbolized what some have described as a deeply flawed federal response.2
Couple that with the following and one had the feeling at the time that FEMA and friends were clueless:
Secretary Chertoff: “similarly confident, flew Tuesday to Atlanta for a briefing on avian flu. With power out from the high winds and movement limited, even news reporters in New Orleans remained unaware of the full extent of the levee breaches until Tuesday” (source) .
Some other bullets to refresh our memories:
- Bush’s head of FEMA was woefully inexperienced for the job (source):
Before joining the Bush administration in 2001, Brown spent 11 years as the commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association…”This was his full-time job…for 11 years,” [a spokeswoman] added.
Brown was forced out of the position after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures. “He was asked to resign,” Bill Pennington, president of the IAHA at the time, confirmed last night.
Soon after, Brown was invited to join the administration by his old Oklahoma college roommate Joseph Allbaugh, the previous head of FEMA until he quit in 2003 to work for the president’s re-election campaign.
- Brown preened as New Orleans flooded
- ‘Can I quit now?’ FEMA chief wrote as Katrina raged
- President Bush: “on vacation in Texas, was feeling relieved that New Orleans had “dodged the bullet,” he later recalled” (source).
- Bush, Katrina and Videotape
- Katrina: Who Knew What When?
- The Bush Administration and Katrina
So no, this won’t be Obama’s Katrina (at least not that is foreseeable at the moment).