Katrina debacle started Bush’s slide into political disaster

In a series of screwups that have come to define the inabilities of the administration of President George W. Bush, the failures of the federal government to respond to the Hurricane Katrina one year ago stand as a monument to incompetence.

A year after Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast and left New Orleans in ruins, Bush is still buried under political fallout from a federal response widely viewed as inept and all-too-typical of a callous Presidential administration.

As the storm’s August 29 anniversary approaches, memories of corpses and debris piling up in the streets and desperate victims pleading for help from rooftops and the sweltering Superdome in New Orleans still dominate American memories.

Those pictures — juxtaposed with the government’s failure to muster an adequate initial response — shattered the image that Bush sought to cultivate after the September 11 attacks as a strong and effective leader. In the year that followed, misstep after misstep in Iraq destroyed what little chance the President might have had to reestablish himself as a competent leader.

Katrina killed about 1,500 people and displaced hundreds of thousands across four states and started a slide in Bush’s poll numbers from which he has only partially recovered.

With two months left before the November midterm election when Democrats could overturn Republican dominance in at least one chamber of the U.S. Congress, Bush’s approval ratings are averaging around 40 percent, compared to the mid-40s before Katrina. They hit bottom near 30 percent earlier this year.

Bush will travel to the Gulf Coast next week, a trip analysts said was a political necessity as the anniversary renews anguish over the catastrophe.

“The memories that are going to be awakened by the anniversary are not memories that the administration wants to focus on,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

Yet Baker said the last thing Bush wants to do is be seen as running away from the issue because “he’d be accused of cowardice.”

Katrina weighed heavily on Bush’s popularity in part because it played into doubts that were already setting in about his handling of the Iraq war, said Calvin Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

Bush, who has a business background, touted leadership in his campaign. The view of Bush as a strong leader hit a high point after the 2001 hijacked airliner attacks.

“There was already increasing concern about the Iraq war and its planning and execution,” Jillson said. “What Katrina did was to add to people’s doubts about the claims to competence.”


Bush visits Mississippi on Monday before heading to New Orleans to dine with local officials. He will stay overnight in the still-struggling jazz city and spend the day there on Tuesday — the one-year anniversary of Katrina’s landfall.

He has said that while there is more to do to help the Gulf Coast rebuild, the federal government has shown a firm commitment by devoting $110 billion, an unprecedented sum. The storm caused some $80 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Bush admitted the early effort to rush food, medicine and rescuers to the Gulf Coast was flawed and eventually forced out the top emergency management official, Michael Brown. The hurricane response highlighted racial inequities with many poor and black residents of New Orleans suffering the most.

Bush’s defenders insist that blame for the troubled Katrina relief effort must be shared with local officials.

But Bush initially chose to view the damage from his plane, making him appear aloof. He did visit the Gulf Coast four days after the hurricane where he praised Brown for doing a “heck of a job” — a comment that has been ridiculed.

Bush critics got new fodder in March when a videotape surfaced showing him meeting with government officials before the storm. They warned him the levees protecting New Orleans could be topped, undercutting the president’s comments just after the storm that the levee breach had not been anticipated.

After meeting at the White House on Wednesday with Rockey Vaccarella, who lost everything in Katrina and now lives in a trailer, Bush told reporters the Katrina anniversary was a time to remember people’s suffering.

He added, “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 these people rebuild.”

Caren Bohan of Reuters wrote parts of this article.