Neck Deep: Drowning Accountability
Editor’s Note: Two years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the great American city of New Orleans and killed some 1,800 people along the Gulf Coast. With that tragedy, however, came a belated public awakening about how George W. Bush had put cronyism, ideology and partisanship ahead of competence, national unity and accountability.
In this excerpt from our new book, Neck Deep, that national turning point is recalled:
On Aug. 27, 2005, as a powerful hurricane named Katrina surged through the Gulf of Mexico and took aim at New Orleans, most Americans still had confidence in their government’s ability to respond to crises and natural disasters with efficiency and speed.
The country prided itself on its ability to rescue people in danger, to dispatch resources, to rebuild after the worst was over.
Many Americans considered the United States unparalleled in its ability to fly disaster specialists to the far corners of the globe when catastrophe struck, to oversee the delivery of food, water, medicines and other necessities. It was part of America’s can-do spirit; it was part of the national self-image.
There was also a belief that technology had gone a long way in taming the threats of nature, that the types of disasters that had plagued the country in its earlier days were like yellowed newspaper articles. They were tales from grandparents, like the stories of World War II or the Great Depression, mildly interesting but no longer very relevant.
Modern catastrophes – at least as they affected most Americans – were confined to Hollywood disaster movies with big-budget special effects that brought the audience right into the middle of the danger but without any real threat of harm.
That was the frame of reference for many Americans as they concentrated on the news of Katrina’s approach to New Orleans. There was a fascination with the possibility of danger; there was awareness that many experts warned about flood waters breaching the levees and inundating the low-lying city; but there were few expectations that those alarms would prove true or that serious harm would befall New Orleans.
On another long vacation in Crawford, Texas, President Bush treated the gathering threat to New Orleans in a similar vein. He responded to the alarm among government weather experts with little more than cheerleading, praise for and confidence in the federal, state and local officials on the front lines.
Like many Americans watching on TV, Bush acted like a spectator expecting whatever damage did occur would be neatly cleared away and everything would quickly be put back in order.
Newsmen and network anchors also behaved with more excitement than trepidation. They flew to New Orleans expecting some dramatic scenes of themselves in rain gear leaning into the wind to shout live reports into a microphone. They would bemoan the property damage and some loss of life, before packing up and flying back to New York or on to another assignment.
But that wasn’t how Hurricane Katrina played out. Instead the storm and its devastation brought a national awakening – or at least the beginning of one – with large numbers of Americans finally catching on to the gap between Bush’s rhetoric and reality.
Before Katrina, the mix of Bush’s folksy charm, the lasting emotions from 9/11 and the powerful right-wing media/political apparatus had kept most Americans under the President’s spell.
In a way, Bush’s ability to mesmerize so many people fit with a different type of thriller movie, one in which a harrowing truth dawns slowly on a community although the recognition of danger may have come too late.
There had been plenty of warnings about the precarious topographical situation facing New Orleans, one of the nation’s best-known and best-loved cities, the home of jazz, Cajun cooking and Mardi Gras.
Government experts and journalists knew that a severe hurricane could force a storm surge that would push the waters of Lake Pontchartrain over the levees and flood large sections of the city that sat below sea level. New Orleans was often compared to a saucer that would quickly fill if liquid began pouring over the edges.
In a report prior to the 9/11 attacks, the Federal Emergency Management Administration had listed a hurricane inundating New Orleans as one of the three most likely catastrophes hitting the United States, along with a terrorist assault on New York City and a San Francisco earthquake.
A series of articles in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2004 had detailed the looming threat, which was made worse by budgetary neglect of the sinking levee system and an incomplete reconstruction.
“It appears that the money has been moved in the President’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay,” said Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. “Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”
A possible breach of the levees also was a major topic of discussion on news and weather channels as Katrina churned through the Gulf. Yet, when Katrina crashed ashore, wreaking devastation along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, government officials – local, state and federal – seemed taken aback, at times almost paralyzed.
The flood broke through the levees protecting New Orleans Ninth Ward, filling block after block with muddy fetid water. Tens of thousands of residents were trapped; hundreds drowning in their homes; others seeking refuge in emergency shelters at the Superdome and at the Convention Center.
On Aug. 30, 2005, the Times-Picayune posted a story at its Web site saying “no one can say they didn’t see it coming.”
It took a while for the magnitude of the New Orleans disaster to become clear. The big-name newscasters who had pre-positioned themselves in the storm’s path – the likes of NBC’s Brian Williams and CNN’s Anderson Cooper – sounded more shocked at first than horrified.
After the storm passed, they looked out their hotel windows at the strange sight of city streets covered in water. Then, as the summer heat returned, the journalists moved out around the city, often by boat, to witness a scene more befitting the Third World than the world’s superpower.
Bloated bodies floated in the water or rotted in the hot sun. Hundreds of residents, trapped in their homes, frantically tore through attic ceilings to climb out onto roof tops and to wave their arms for help. Others drowned in steamy attics as the water kept rising.
The Superdome, which had hosted Super Bowl games and other national sporting events, quickly became infamous as a scene of unspeakable living conditions as New Orleans residents sweltered inside amid overflowing toilets and urine-soaked artificial turf.
The U.S. government along with local and state authorities appeared powerless to respond quickly. Instead, federal, state and local officials descended into rounds of acrimonious finger-pointing.
The Katrina crisis also brought to light some of Bush’s leadership weaknesses that had been hidden behind White House P.R. curtains during his first term.
In a retrospective on the Katrina disaster, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas reported that “it’s a standing joke among the President’s top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the President of the United States.”
On Aug. 30, after Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the New Orleans levees, the White House staff was in full cringe mode. Someone was going to have to tell Bush that he needed to cut short his five-week vacation by a couple of days.
Though Bush did agree to return to Washington, he remained in a protective bubble about how bad the Katrina news really was. Before devoting his attention to the catastrophe, he fulfilled speaking commitments in San Diego and Phoenix – even clowning with a gift guitar – before heading back to Washington.
Since Bush famously shuns reading newspapers or watching the news, his staff decided that the best way to clue Bush in on how bad things were was to burn a special DVD with TV footage of the flood so he could watch the DVD on Air Force One, Newsweek’s Thomas reported.
“How this could be – how the President of the United States could have even less ‘situational awareness,’ as they say in the military, than the average American about the worse natural disaster in a century – is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace,” Thomas wrote.
The Katrina debacle also represented the first significant test of whether the marginal inroads that American progressives had made in talk radio and the Internet would have any measurable effect.
Certainly, pro-Bush right-wing talk radio was doing the best it could to divert blame from the Bush administration onto New Orleans’ black mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana’s Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco and the mostly black survivors of New Orleans who had been trapped by the storm.
Some right-wing AM radio talkers said “able-bodied” people who lacked transportation should simply have walked out of New Orleans. In other words, if these folks weren’t so lazy and stupid, they would have used their own two feet.
But the idea of trying to out-walk a hurricane with 150-mile-per-hour winds would seem nutty to anyone who’s ever lived through even a milder storm. Still, the argument gave Bush’s base another reason not to blame the President or his team.
For once, however, there was another side of the story reaching listeners on the AM dial.
As the seriousness of the Katrina crisis sank in on Aug. 31, Robert Parry was driving north from Washington to Montreal for a previously scheduled meeting. He wrote at Consortiumnews.com that “while on the road, I also got a taste of how valuable progressive talk radio could be for arming American liberals with facts and for persuading Middle Americans that the nation needs new leadership.
“As I drove past New York City, I picked up an Air America Radio station where the hosts explained how Bush’s spending in Iraq had diverted money needed to strengthen New Orleans’ levees and how deployment of National Guard troops in Iraq had undermined the Guard’s ability to respond to the disaster.
“What was even more striking was the anger and passion in the voices of Air America listeners who called in from all over the country. They were furious over the national disgrace that was unfolding in New Orleans, as Bush vacationed in Texas and then responded haltingly to the crisis.
“But the radio signal of the New York City station faded as I reached upstate New York. The only AM talk radio I could get then was the far more pervasive conservative variety. On those stations, the New Orleans crisis either was treated as not that big a deal or as something to blame on anybody but Bush.”
When Bush finally made his belated trip to the Gulf Coast on Sept. 2, the DVD strategy did not appear to have worked. He still seemed disconnected from the human tragedy and more interested in suggesting that the catastrophe was unforeseen.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” Bush told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, although the threat to the levees had been recognized for years.
As tens of thousands of mostly poor and black citizens endured squalor in flooded New Orleans, Bush slid into his role of peppy cheerleader and consoled friends like Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, who had lost one of his homes.
“Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house – he’s lost his entire house – there’s going to be a fantastic house,” Bush joshed. “And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”
Bush also had some encouraging words for his hapless FEMA director, Michael Brown. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush said.
Before boarding a flight back to Washington, Bush continued to banter amid the suffering. Playing for laughs, Bush recalled his past hard partying in New Orleans, which he called “the town where I used to come … to enjoy myself, occasionally too much.”
That night during a televised fundraiser for hurricane relief, rapper Kanye West veered off script to criticize the media for its perceived bias against African-Americans and George Bush for his lackadaisical response to the disaster.
“I hate the way they portray us in the media,” West said. “If you see a black family it says they are looting [but] if you see a white family it says they are looking for food.”
Summing up the President’s attitude, West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The remark sent NBC executives into a panic that led them to censor West’s comments from the show’s rebroadcast in the Pacific time zone.
On Saturday, Sept. 3, driving back toward Washington, Robert Parry reported that “I reached the New York City area and again tuned in the Air America station. But I was disappointed to hear only the broadcast of pre-recorded ‘best-of’ content, some of it predating Hurricane Katrina.
“Air America appeared to lack the resources to dispatch correspondents to the scene and offer special live weekend coverage of the crisis. I did, however, find live right-wing talk radio, including more blame being heaped on the trapped New Orleans residents for not using their feet and walking out of the city before the hurricane hit.”
For once, however, the right-wing media couldn’t dictate the terms of a national story. Not only had the New Orleans levees broken, but the dams protecting George W. Bush’s image were cracking, too.
This time when Bush fumbled a national crisis, many leading newscasters were on scene to witness the debacle and other journalists echoed their first-hand assessments of the chaos and ineptitude.
With New Orleans turned into a giant cesspool – and with bloated remains of American citizens left for days to rot in the sun – the nation was finally shaking itself alert and finding the nightmare all too real.
Facing a suddenly critical news media and a sharp decline in poll numbers, Bush revised his approach to the crisis. He ordered up more trips to the region; posed with more African-Americans; and vowed a vast rebuilding project on par with what he promised for Iraq.
But his mother stepped on Bush’s new compassion. During a visit to Katrina evacuees in Houston’s Astrodome, former First Lady Barbara Bush expressed her discomfort over “what I’m hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. …
“So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this – this (she chuckles) is working very well for them.”
Bush, the ersatz populist, looked like a phony to many Americans when he gave a nationally televised speech in shirt sleeves in New Orleans’ Jackson Square with special generators and lighting that had been flown in to give him a dramatic backdrop.
“We will do what it takes; we will stay as long as it takes,” Bush declared on Sept. 15 in phrasing reminiscent of his pledges about Iraq.
But many prominent figures in the mainstream U.S. news media weren’t buying Bush’s P.R. offensive this time. New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that the Katrina disaster had exposed, once and for all, Bush’s incompetence and phoniness.
“Once Toto parts the curtain, the Wizard of Oz can never be the wizard again,” Rich wrote. “He is forever Professor Marvel, blowhard and snake-oil salesman. Hurricane Katrina, which is likely to endure in the American psyche as long as L. Frank Baum’s mythic tornado, has similarly unmasked George W. Bush.
“The worst storm in our history proved perfect for exposing this President because in one big blast it illuminated all his failings: the rampant cronyism, the empty sloganeering of ‘compassionate conservatism,’ the lack of concern for the ‘underprivileged’ his mother condescended to at the Astrodome, the reckless lack of planning for all government operations except tax cuts, the use of spin and photo-ops to camouflage failure and to substitute for action.”
Political moderates also were having second thoughts. Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who supported the Iraq War and other parts of Bush’s foreign policy, concluded that Katrina had left Bush’s ship of state adrift.
Friedman wrote: “Katrina deprived the Bush team of the energy source that propelled it forward for the last four years: 9/11 and the halo over the presidency that came with it. The events of 9/11 created a deference in the U.S. public, and media, for the administration, which exploited it to the hilt to push an uncompassionate conservative agenda on tax cuts and runaway spending, on which it never could have gotten elected. That deference is over.”
“There’s nothing more pathetic than watching someone who’s out of touch feign being in touch,” observed another New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd. “On his fifth sodden pilgrimage of penitence to the devastation he took so long to comprehend, W. desperately tried to show concern. He said he had spent some ‘quality time’ at a Chevron plant in Pascagoula and nattered about trash removal, infrastructure assessment teams and the ‘can-do spirit.’
“‘We look forward to hearing your vision so we can more better do our job,’ he said at a briefing in Gulfport, Mississippi. … The more the President echoes his dad’s ‘Message: I care,’ the more the world hears ‘Message: I can’t.’”
But the overriding question remained: Did this American awakening arrive too late? Was there still time to stop Bush and his allies from consolidating their political control over the federal government?
(Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush is available both at the publisher’s Web site, http://www.neckdeepbook.com, and at Amazon.com. If you buy the book through the publisher’s Web site, $5 will be rebated to Consortiumnews.com to help defray the costs of the site's original news articles and investigative journalism.)
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