Until the end of time, events will happen that humankind cannot prevent. The only things within our control in these instances will be our ability to plan ahead and be quick to respond in the aftermath. Natural disasters are right at the top of the list. The point has been driven home in recent weeks by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and all the debate about the government’s subsequent response.
Few disasters in my lifetime have risen to the scale of Katrina. The obvious parallel in terms of damage and suffering is Sept. 11th, a terrorist attack on a level which, despite foolish claims to the contrary, no one in government could foresee. In the case of Katrina, officials had the benefit of weather forecasts, round-the-clock coverage of a strong hurricane moving toward the Gulf Coast region. Four years ago, Mohammad Atta did not leave his satellite position out in the open for all to see. Katrina did.
Thus, the two keys I mentioned become paramount. Federal, state, and local officials could not control or prevent the hurricane – it was clearly headed toward the Gulf Coast. By the very titles given to them, they were charged with planning ahead and being quick to respond in the disaster’s aftermath. As we sit here today, it is hard to argue that the planning and recovery phases were anything but inadequate.
In my last column, I addressed some of the harsh criticisms of the federal government’s role in the response and said they were over the line. I placed the lion’s share of the blame for the initial weak planning and response where it belongs, on local officials in the Gulf Coast. However, that should in no way be construed to mean that the federal government did its job well either. Federal attention, funds, and personnel should have been on the scene within days to assist the local relief effort.
Last Thursday, President Bush formally addressed the nation for the first time since Katrina struck. He did so in the ruined city of New Orleans itself, alone in front of a camera, without a cheering audience in front of him as he had in his speech to Congress nine days after 9/11. The president spoke to a wounded region and a nation growing increasingly anxious over the federal government’s muddled response to Katrina.
The speech was a break from protocol for Bush on two fronts. One, the majority of his primetime speeches thus far have concerned foreign affairs and the War on Terror. This was perhaps Bush’s most important address on a domestic issue of his presidency. Secondly, the president publicly took responsibility for the federal government’s slow response to Katrina victims. Anyone who has followed Bush’s presidency knows he does not take often accept responsibility at such a public setting.
In the speech, Bush dramatically raised the level of federal involvement in the recovery effort. He pledged federal funding for a variety of proposals, including assistance for people looking for longer-term housing, federal accounts of up to $5000 per person for people to train and find a new job, and conducting a lottery whereby the winners would be able to build a new home on property currently owned by the federal government in the disaster area.
It was an extraordinary commitment of federal money for a man who has certainly not been known to spend freely on domestic initiatives. But extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary responses, and Katrina certainly fits the bill.
Even with the large amount of federal spending involved in his proposals, Bush still stuck to his ideological guns. He promised federal money for religious organizations that have been integral in the rescue and getting aid to victims. Most importantly, the president clearly stated that entrepreneurship will be the key to rebuilding the Gulf Coast economy, and he pledged tax relief for new small businesses in the area.
Critics of Bush have been absolutely relentless and sometimes hysteric in the weeks since Katrina hit, but I will grant them the point that the president had to give this speech and had to take a more proactive role in the recovery effort. However, the doomsday scenarios about Bush’s handling of Katrina spelling the end of his presidency hold no water, pardon the pun. These sorts of predictions are made by ideologues who, if Bush said the sky is blue, would argue that it’s red.
Officials at all levels of government were not adequately prepared for Katrina. Louisiana officials, who know their state best, were not completely ready, and it showed. The federal government took time to acknowledge the scope of the damage. This was no ordinary hurricane, and lessons should be learned from the lack of preparation at both levels. Despite all that, it was still nice to see Bush promise more assistance and reassure a shaken region. He did a good job being the strong leader he has always been.