Bush's vows after Katrina go unfulfilled
Critics: Washington `all windup, no pitch'
By Mark Silva
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published August 26, 2006
WASHINGTON -- One year after Hurricane Katrina's wind and water ruined 200,000 homes along the Gulf Coast and displaced nearly 1 million people, the city of New Orleans and smaller coastal communities are not all that remain to be rebuilt.
President Bush, who accepted blame for the faltering federal response to the disaster, still suffers from the political fallout of a storm that raised questions about the competence of his administration in the face of a catastrophe and about his sensitivity to the poor.
The president's political standing, also battered by an unpopular war and criticism of his handling of matters at home, has not recovered from a year of controversy rooted in Katrina. Some question whether it will ever recover.
While the storm challenged the administration's readiness for crisis, incomplete cleanup and rebuilding efforts have cast doubts on the president's follow-through. The crisis exposed a deep vein of poverty in America, Bush said at the time, tracing that poverty to "a history of racial discrimination" and vowing to address its inequities.
As Bush returns to New Orleans next week for the anniversary of the hurricane that hit Louisiana and Mississippi one year ago Tuesday, observers say, his year-old pledge to rebuild New Orleans and his promise "to confront this poverty with bold action" and "rise above the legacy of inequality" are far from fruition.
This has further embittered Bush's relationship with an African-American community he once vowed to bring into the Republican fold.
In Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., and in New Orleans, Bush will tout progress made, debris removed, tens of billions of federal dollars spent on recovery and many billions more in the pipeline. But the anniversary also provides a spotlight for critics who complain of promises unfulfilled.
"The very word, `Katrina,' is one they are trying to get over. They dread this anniversary," said Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Tulane University and author of "The Great Deluge," an account of one of the most devastating hurricanes in American history. "The Bush administration, post-Katrina, has been all windup and no pitch. It's a low point in Bush's tenure."
The response to this storm could have been a high point for a president who rose to the occasion after the horrifying terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, Katrina revealed the failings of the protective structure Bush built after Sept. 11, a Department of Homeland Security that failed its first major test.
Many visits by the Bushes
This is not the first time Bush has returned to the scene of the crisis. When the president and First Lady Laura Bush appear in Mississippi on Monday and New Orleans on Tuesday, it will be the 22nd time that at least one of them has traveled to the hurricane-stricken coast.
Bush, touting $110 billion in federal aid committed to the recovery of the region, said on Wednesday: "The first obligation of the federal government is to write a check big enough to help the people down there. . . . To the extent that there's still bureaucratic hurdles, and the need for the federal government to help eradicate those hurdles, we want to do that."
He added that "I also want people to remember that a one-year anniversary is just that, because it's going to require a long time to help those people rebuild."
But politically, Bush has been playing catch-up since Katrina made landfall.
At first he was remote from the disaster, leaving a long summer vacation in Texas for a scheduled speech to senior citizens in Arizona the day Katrina struck. His distance was magnified the next day in San Diego, where he commemorated the 60th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day and hoisted a singer's guitar for photographers.
The next soon-to-become iconic image of detachment came with a photograph of Bush looking down at New Orleans from Air Force One as he flew east to Washington. It portrayed, not a concerned leader, but one who had not stopped to comfort suffering people.
When Bush finally did arrive on the Gulf Coast on Sept. 2, he uttered the words to the struggling director of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, that have haunted Bush since: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
As most of New Orleans lay under water and thousands piled into the convention center pleading for food and potable water, the nation's most costly natural disaster had become a full-fledged political disaster.
The crisis arrived as growing numbers of Americans were starting to question the conduct of the war in Iraq as well as Bush's handling of the economy. His approval rating in the Gallup Poll already had slumped to 40 percent days before Katrina, then a low point for Bush and a level of support he still is struggling to maintain.
President's image tarnished
"The greatest damage that Katrina did to President Bush was in his aura of competence," said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama. "It shook the confidence of a lot of people in the White House's ability to respond to either natural or man-made disasters."
When the White House finally grasped the magnitude of the political threat, it struggled to respond. But a year later, that response has not played out as many hoped.
E-mail this story
The president, addressing the nation via TV from the floodlit heart of a darkened New Orleans two weeks after Katrina, promised to rebuild. Responding to images of poor, black New Orleans residents left homeless, Bush cited poverty that "has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America" and committed to bring new, minority-owned businesses to the area and make homeowners of renters.
"He said he was going to talk about race and poverty," said Brinkley, who teaches American civilization at Tulane. "When did that happen? It's back to business as usual."
The federal government has committed $17 billion for community development block grants, offering as much as $150,000 for each homeowner whose home stood outside designated flood zones.
But Mississippi only recently started paying out this money to homeowners, and Louisiana is just now starting.
Experts say little will end up in the hands of low-income homeowners--and none will go to renters, nearly half of the people displaced by Katrina.
"This is a unique opportunity in American life," said Roland Anglin, director of the Initiative on Regional and Community Transformation at Rutgers University. "When the president came to the Gulf Coast and made those remarks, a lot of us thought that was an opportunity to readdress the issue of race and equity. Unfortunately, that has not progressed as much as many of us hoped it would."
Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, made a similar point. "To remove poverty, you have to assist people in building assets," he said, adding that few are receiving aid. "Home renters, low-income workers and senior citizens are left out."
The administration, however, cautions that restoration of such a disaster-racked region takes time. The federal government has designated more than $110 billion overall for the cleanup, for temporary housing of the displaced and for rebuilding levees, infrastructure and homes, and $44 billion has been spent, according to Donald Powell, Bush's federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding.
"There's been lots of progress made in one year," Powell said. "This is an ongoing effort to rebuild the Gulf Coast. ... I would acknowledge that there's more to be done. . . . I have a sense of frustration, I have a sense of urgency all the time."
The cleanup has consumed time and money. While all of the dry debris in Mississippi has been removed, 25 percent of the debris in Louisiana awaits cleanup.
Miles of levees rebuilt
The Army Corps of Engineers has rebuilt 220 miles of the levees around New Orleans. Yet the corps allows that it will take until 2010 to build barriers sufficient to withstand the worst storm predictable over 100 years. And Congress has not authorized levees capable of withstanding Category 5 hurricanes, the most severe. Katrina, which gained that intensity as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico, hit New Orleans as a Category 3 storm.
Yet, critics say, it is the more profound goal of social and racial equity that the president raised in the aftermath of Katrina that remains furthest from realization one year later.
"This is a problem that continues to earn him the ire of black Americans," said Ronald Walters, a political scientist and director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.
"All in all, what you feel is the lack of an aggressive federal response," Walters said. "The president, after criticism, was responsive. . . . But then he pretty much walked away."