The Bush Administration has faltered badly in addressing the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. It took the president five days before he and his handlers decided that he’d actually have to visit the disaster site to quell the chorus of rage swelling in the breasts of New Orleans residents left without water, food, sanitation or means of fleeing the disintegrating city. Even as it is, the New York Times makes clear what Bush did NOT do:
…The president did not interact much with storm victims, and at one site, a Salvation Army truck in Mississippi, those he did see had first been screened by Secret Service agents with metal detectors.
Imagine those who are most in need are viewed primarily as security threats instead of the victims they are. Here’s more that he didn’t do:
Mr. Bush flew back to Washington from New Orleans without paying a visit to the chaotic makeshift trauma center set up in one terminal at the airport, where many patients evacuated from the city’s hospitals were dying before they could be airlifted to other cities.
Mr. Bush did not go into the heart of the city’s devastation, where thousands of largely poor, black refugees have raged at the government’s response to one of the worst natural disasters in American history. The White House cited security concerns and worries about causing more chaos as the reasons for keeping Mr. Bush away from the streets and the New Orleans Superdome, where refugees have lived in squalor and lawlessness for days.
“The president wanted to see as much as he could without impeding the relief efforts,” said Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman.
Throughout his day, Mr. Bush did not address the shocking images of the desperate and dying on television, even when he was asked by a reporter in Biloxi “why the richest nation on earth can’t get food and water to those people that need it.”
Mr. Bush sidestepped the question and responded that helicopters had rescued people from rooftops and “thousands of peoples’ lives have been saved immediately, and that’s good news.”
Bush did not visit the single most horrific site in the city, the Convention Center. He did not spend any significant amount of time with any of the poor, Black and displaced who were hardest hit and most in need. What’s perhaps worst of all is that instead of facing the disastrous federal response, admitting it failed, and promising to turn things around, he tells us instead that “we didn’t know it’d be this bad,” “we did pretty good considering,” etc. This simply won’t do.
What did he do?
Mr. Bush hugged and kissed two weeping sisters on a street where a house had collapsed, telling them to “hang in there,” and later passed out bottles of water to residents at a Salvation Army truck.
It was the first time that the president encountered a storm victim since the hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast on Monday
Mighty impressive. Should we start calling him the “compassion president?” In case anyone thinks that Bush’s “compassion” is winning over the victims, listen to what Ray Nagin, New Orleans’ mayor said in a radio interview:
“Don’t tell me 40,000 people are coming here,” he said. “They’re not here. It’s too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.”
And of course, the bushmasters of spin have already spun the timing of their visit:
White House officials had said that Mr. Bush, in cutting short his month-long vacation, would tour the region either Friday or Saturday, and in the end he chose the day on which he could arrive simultaneously with the first convoys of relief supplies. As Mr. Bush appeared in Biloxi, cable television channels ran a split-screen image of National Guard trucks bringing food and water to desperate people in the Superdome.
Or how ’bout this nice little piece of spin spun for Bush by the victims themselves?
“He’s going to give us all the help he can. I think he’s seen enough devastation,” said Valerie Owens, who had received a hug and a kiss from Mr. Bush when she went to get food from the Salvation Army truck. The president teared up, Ms. Owens said, as she told him how she and her family and neighbors, including two children, ages 2 and 5, had ridden out the storm for five hours on a small flat boat, named the S.S. Minnow, just like on “Gilligan’s Island.”
Too bad those 25,000 poor folk at the New Orleans convention center don’t each have their very own S.S. Minnows.
Another victim sounded a note of caution in her evaluation of Bush:
“He said he’s trying to get everything back on track for us,” Ms. Robertson said. She and her family live in four houses along a nearby street and all had their roofs crushed by trees, debris and wind. “I believe him because I have to,” she said. “I have no choice for right now.”
The reporter also notes there were many victims in Biloxi who grumbled with dissatisfaction and refused to meet the president during his visit. Can you blame them?
Bush and FEMA director Michael Brown were incredibly defensive in their public statements over the past 24 hours. These are some Bush winners:
“I am satisfied with the response, I’m not satisfied with all the results.”
“I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” he told Diane Sawyer.
Excuse me? George Bush is satisfied that tens of thousands of poor New Orleanians are milling around the downtown convention center with nothing to eat, drink or do except seethe with increasing resentment at federal ineptitude? He shouldn’t be satisfied with either the response or the results. Instead, he’s trying to split hairs and parse the bad news so it sounds less bad.
And George, just about everyone who’s studied the subject or participated in disaster simulations for New Orleans has projected exactly what you say no one anticipated. And just for the hell of it, let’s say they didn’t. Why didn’t they? After all, it happened didn’t it? Isn’t the whole point of disaster preparedness to antiticpate the worst so you’ll know how to handle it if it does happen? Do I hear the word ‘clueless’?
Here’s what Maureen Dowd had to say about Brown’s performance:
Michael Brown, the blithering idiot in charge of FEMA – a job he trained for by running something called the International Arabian Horse Association – admitted he didn’t know until Thursday that there were 15,000 desperate, dehydrated, hungry, angry, dying victims of Katrina in the New Orleans Convention Center.
In reality, Hurricane Katrina has revealed the dirty little secret of the Bush presidency and Republican politics in generaI: an absolute divorce from the plight of the poor and minorities. Most of the time, Americans seem willing to excuse Bush’s indifference to the downtrodden. But in situations like this in which their consciences are pricked by the graphic images they’re seeing on TV, they’re turning on him. But I’m afraid (and Bush is banking on this) of Americans’ short attention span when it comes to disasters like this.
I’ll bet somebody at the White House has already said: “What we need is another Tammy Pruett (the Idaho mother of a dead GI who supports the president on Iraq as a counter-balance to Cindy Sheehan’s criticism of him).” And of course, we will see folks like that sometime soon. It’s just that the PR flacks have judged that it’s not the right time to try to spin the hurricane too much–yet. But rest assured the time will come. And I hope the American people will turn the spin back on itself and tell George Bush to give it a rest.
Mazon: a Jewish Response to Hunger is raising funds to provide food and water to hurricane victims. To donate, click on the above link.