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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 | African Americans, George W Bush, Hurricane Katrina | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Glorious To See, Yet Also Deceiving”: Today, Gulf Looks Fine, But Wait Until The Next One Hits

Five years after the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up, the Chandeleur Islands look alive off the coast of Louisiana.

The beaches are sugary white and unstained by oil. The water is green and full of fish. Birds are everywhere — laughing gulls, willets, terns, skimmers, egrets, oyster catchers, and herons.

A rookery that some feared would be annihilated by the spill is thriving, the mangroves bobbing with hundreds of pelicans, old and young.

It’s glorious to see, yet also deceiving. For 87 straight days in 2010, crude oil gushed nearby from a broken well in the Gulf of Mexico — 172 million gallons, according to the U.S. government, though nobody really knows how much.

And nobody can say how much of it remains in the water. Most of the oil has likely dissolved or evaporated, but panels of scientists assert that millions of gloppy gallons still spatter the sea floor.

The Chandeleurs, a crescent barrier chain that’s part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, were among the first to get oiled after the BP blowout. It was also the first place where dying sea birds were found.

A six-foot sand berm was hastily constructed to contain the oil at the northernmost Chandeleurs. Whether it was because of that, the tides or favorable winds, the islands were not hit as brutally as some coastal areas.

Seeing all this life on the water at sunrise, one can’t be blamed for thinking everything’s fine, pretty much back to normal. That’s what you hear from BP, too, but it’s not entirely true.

Since the spill, bottle-nosed dolphins have been dying at about three times the normal rate in the northern Gulf. Deep-water corals have shown lasting damage. Oil traced to the BP blowout has been found in the livers of red snapper and tilefish. Unexplained lesions and tumors have been observed in bottom-dwelling fish.

BP says the seafood taken from the Gulf is safe to eat, and tests much lower for oil residues than is required by the Food and Drug Administration.

The oil giant has spent a fortune cleaning up its image and the mess in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, including $13.7 billion in claims and settlements. The company says its drilling operations are much safer now.

Because the whole world got to watch the Deepwater Horizon disaster live — literally streaming — politicians who favored more offshore exploration retreated temporarily. They were counting on Americans to have a short memory.

Then, in January, the Obama administration proposed a plan that would open offshore oil leases in the Atlantic Ocean, from Virginia to Georgia. Ten new leases would also be granted in the Gulf of Mexico; one is in the eastern zone near Florida, where opposition to coastal drilling traditionally has been fierce.

Yet, except for criticism from environmental groups, there hasn’t been a loud public outcry over Obama’s plan in Florida, or in any of the states with tourist economies that depend on clean, untarred beaches.

Virginia’s two U.S. senators, both Democrats, praised the president’s drilling program, saying it “should result in the safe, responsible development of energy resources.”

Because big oil companies never screw up, right?

Apparently, five years is the political probation period after a man-made catastrophe. Obama has moved to allow seismic testing for possible offshore oil and gas reserves all the way from Delaware to Cape Canaveral.

The process involves the staccato firing of big compressed air guns deep in the ocean over periods of weeks. Prominent scientists from Duke, Cornell and other institutions say the method poses a “significant threat to marine life.”

In a rare display of attentiveness, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection last month wrote to the feds, seeking postponement of seismic permits until more is known about how the blasting air guns affect whales, fish and sea turtles. (Negatively would be a good guess).

On a boat in the Chandeleurs, under a sky filled with birds, it’s tempting to marvel at nature’s rebound and push aside the dreadful images from the spring of five years ago.

There are no obvious signs of the BP spill here. Even the protective berm is gone, obliterated by Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

Yet the truth is that terrible damage was done by that 87-day flood of oil into the Gulf, and many communities suffered immensely. Since then, numerous spills have occurred both on land and in water in this country, none of them on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon but still a signal for extreme caution.

Nobody knows when the next big ocean blowout will happen.

Everything out there looks just fine.

Until one day it isn’t.

 

By: Carl Hiaasen, Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, May 5, 2015

May 9, 2015 Posted by | Big Oil, Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, Environment | , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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