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“The Undoing Of George W. Bush”: Even With Mass Communications, The Uninterrupted 29 Day Vacation Is Where It All Began To Go Wrong

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history during the late summer of 2005. In addition to showing the determination and courage of the victims and first responders – etched deep into the nation’s consciousness – Katrina also illustrated the perils that presidents face when they fail to deal with such calamities in a timely and efficient way, as George W. Bush discovered a decade ago. Strange as it may seem at this time of instant communication and the 24-hour news cycle, Bush didn’t pay attention to the biggest news story of the moment because he was on vacation and allowed himself to get isolated from the country.

Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, spread across 400 miles with sustained winds of up to 125 mph. A storm surge as high as 9 meters in some places rolled across levees and drainage canals and led to widespread flooding and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Damage was estimated at $100 billion. And, while there is no official death toll and numbers vary, more than 1,000 people died.

The National Weather Service had warned on August 28, the day before the storm made landfall on the Gulf Coast, that “most of the [Gulf Coast] area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer.” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the city evacuated and he opened the Superdome as a shelter, but the thousands of people who sought refuge there found little or no food, water and medical care.

Americans across the country were shocked by the television images they saw in Katrina’s immediate aftermath. People stood on rooftops waving their arms and pleading for help as the flood waters inundated their communities. Desperate folks in the Superdome appeared in heartbreaking TV interviews begging for aid in their time of need. Making matters worse was that 67 percent of New Orleans was African American and 30 percent of the residents were poor, creating the impression that the government was insensitive and neglectful of minorities and the less fortunate.

While all this was going on, the president of the United States remained aloof from the disaster. Day after day, George W. Bush continued a long-planned vacation at his 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas, and his staff didn’t want to burden him with detailed information about the situation on the Gulf Coast. When Katrina made landfall, Bush had been on holiday at his ranch for 27 days, according to a tabulation kept by CBS News.

As the hurricane grew into a catastrophe, and as the nation watched the TV coverage in horror, Bush’s aides decided they had to inform the president about it in stark terms. One of his aides put together a video showing scenes of hurricane-ravaged communities and showed it to the president. At this point, Bush decided he should cut his vacation short and return home two days early to preside over the federal response from Washington. He flew back to Washington on August 31, after 29 days at his ranch.

On the way back, he had Air Force One fly over part of the devastated area and he glimpsed the wreckage from the plane. White House officials allowed news photographers to take photos of a grim-faced Bush looking out an Air Force One window but the PR gambit backfired. Many Americans saw the photo, which was widely disseminated, as evidence that Bush was too distant from the misery below. In a 2010 interview with NBC, Bush conceded that allowing the photo to be taken was a “huge mistake” because it made him seem “detached and uncaring.”

Bush declined to visit the devastated area right away. White House aides said at the time that Bush didn’t want to cause disruptions in rescue and recovery efforts by diverting security and communications to himself. But Bush allies privately conceded that he could have quickly visited somewhere along the Gulf Coast with minimal disruption, perhaps a staging site, to show solidarity with victims of the hurricane and the first responders. His supporters said later that his slow reaction and the weak federal, state and local response to the hurricane undermined Bush’s reputation for being an effective crisis manager and a decisive leader. And his reputation never improved even though he later made repeated visits to the hurricane zone and steered billions of federal dollars into recovery programs.

“He never recovered from Katrina,” says a former Bush adviser and Republican strategist who wants to remain anonymous to avoid offending the Bush family. “The unfolding disaster with the Iraq war [a conflict which Bush ordered] didn’t help, but it’s clear that after Katrina he never got back the popularity that he had.” Referring to Bush’s decision to fly over the ravaged areas and allow photos to be taken of him peering out the window, the former adviser added: “He’s rued that decision ever since.”

In his book “Decision Points,” Bush wrote, “That photo of me hovering over the damage suggested I was detached from the suffering on the ground. That was not how I felt. But once that impression was formed, I couldn’t change it.”

Bush loyalists say the administration was hampered by slow and inept responses from state and local authorities in Louisiana including Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Nagin. But the president was widely blamed by the public for failing to provide emergency relief in a timely manner and for being insensitive.

Polls at the time bear out this negative assessment. A Washington Post-ABC News survey found that the bungled response to Katrina dragged down Bush’s job approval rating in mid-September 2005 to 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency until that point, while 57 percent disapproved of his performance. Only 49 percent said he could be “trusted in a crisis” compared with 60 percent who felt that way a year earlier.

“It raised fundamental questions in people’s minds about how in touch he was while there was chaos in people’s lives, and how much he cared about it,” says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “And it raised questions about the basic competence of his administration.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, was widely blamed for failing to act quickly enough to help those affected by the storm. Yet President Bush, in a vivid example of seeming out of touch, praised FEMA director Michael Brown early in the crisis. “Brownie,” Bush said, “you’re doing a heck of a job.” These words would come back to embarrass Bush when it became clear how badly FEMA had botched its work. (Brown was eventually forced out of his job.)

Summarizing many people’s perceptions of Bush’s performance after Katrina, entertainer Kanye West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” who were disproportionately the victims of the hurricane. Bush later called this “one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.” Bush added: “He called me a racist. … I resent it. It’s not true.”

But Katrina remains a blot on Bush’s presidency even today.

 

By: Kenneth T. Walsh, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, August 28, 2015

August 30, 2015 - Posted by | George W Bush, African Americans, Hurricane Katrina | , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. His mishandling of Katrina response may be a worse legacy than the WMD reason for invading Iraq. There were some voices who said don’t rebuild New Orleans. These are American citizens and NO is an asset to America. Bush was rightfully vilified for this failure.

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    Comment by btg5885 | August 30, 2015 | Reply

  2. FEMA had always been noted for its quick and efficient responses to disasters. It was Bush who took it from an independent organization and placed it under the Homeland Security umbrella, where it became an unwanted stepchild. The levels of overhead management and impediments to quick decision making were severe obstructions to getting the job done. This reorganization was yet again another indicator of Bush’s Katrina failure.

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    Comment by Barneysday | August 30, 2015 | Reply

    • Agree. That’s why it’s named Federal “Emergency” Management. It should be ready to go at the drop of a dime and should not be embedded in the Homeland Security bureaucratic umbrella.

      Like

      Comment by raemd95 | August 30, 2015 | Reply


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