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May. 1 2010 - 5:16 pm | 2,150 views | 3 recommendations | 10 comments

Obama’s Katrina in the Gulf? No comparison

The NY Times today runs—and, perhaps more significantly, Politico’s Playbook email blast cites—a classic case of pointless navel-gazing the press too often engages in, at the expense of actual reporting. The whole structure of the piece is typical: You start with a link-baiting headline, “Shadow of Hurricane Katrina Hangs Over Obama After Spill.”

Then you go on to demonstrate how responsible you are by saying, in the 13th of 15 paragraphs, that there is a “key difference” between the spill and Katrina.

In between you dig up an academic—in this case, a self-promoting professor at a fourth-rate university—to say something that sounds detached and intellectual, but in fact is a total case of log-rolling, with the log having been replaced by a piece of bullshit in the shape of a log. I wonder how many calls Helene Cooper had to make to get someone to say something to support her obviously pre-determined thesis, that the spill is somehow comparable to the Great Flood of New Orleans?

The Times has therefore, in an attempt to demonstrate its lack of liberal bias, launched a meme in the political discourse, justifying pundits’ forthcoming “balanced” debates on cable about an issue that doesn’t exist.

Here are a few “key differences,” in the hopes that as little as possible breath and ink is wasted on this baseless comparison.

1) Katrina was not an accident, and as such, it was predictable. We must remember that what happened in New Orleans was not a natural disaster; it was entirely man-made. The state of the levees protecting the city was well-known: the Army Corps of Engineers, which was responsible for them, knew it, and anyone who read the Times-Picayune’s superb series on the danger posed to the city by a major hurricane due to the weak levees knew it too. The Corps’s budget for levee construction in New Orleans was slashed by Bush 14 months before Katrina, and its overall budget was cut by $71.2 million two months before the storm. Bush, as he never tired of reminding us, was Commander in Chief, and therefore bore ultimate responsibility for not fixing the levees in the four-and-a-half years he had to do so before the hurricane struck.

2) Hurricanes are forecast; the type of accident that exacerbated the spill has never happened before. Bush had days, if not weeks, to send emergency supplies to New Orleans and help with its evacuation as the storm came from the Atlantic, across Florida, west through the Gulf, and finally north to the mouth of the Mississippi. By contrast, the mechanism that’s supposed to shut off BP’s oil well has never failed before. This shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of offshore drilling, or an excuse for BP, which spent $700m on the rig that exploded and $1m a day to run it. But Bush could have prepared for the flood of New Orleans, and chose not to. It’s true that Obama could have, in general way, done more to prevent an oil spill in the Gulf, but foreseeing this disaster would have been impossible, because no such disaster of this particular type had ever occurred. Not so with Bush.

3) Bush deliberately dismantled the system for responding to disasters, both directly and indirectly. Bush directed in 2005 that FEMA “officially” lose disaster-preparedness capabilities, leaving no federal agency to perform this essential function. In January 2001, he had named a crony from Texas with no experience in disaster management to head FEMA. This guy handed the reins to Mike “Heckuva job” Brown, a college friend who also had no experience, and had been fired from his previous job for mismanagement. Brown was at the controls when Katrina came ashore. FEMA denied flood-control requests from Louisiana.

4) Bush slept, and New Orleans wept; Obama was on the case from Day 1. Here’s a timeline of the days before and after Katrina. It shows that 3 hours after first reports of levee breach, Bush was making a speech somewhere (“My Pet Goat,” anyone?) and 12 hours after, Rumsfeld was at a baseball game. The governor of Louisiana made a desperate plea for help at 8pm on the 29th; Bush went to bed that night without responding. The next day, he went on vacation. Three days later a campaign had begun to blame local officials.

By contrast, the Coast Guard was on the scene within hours of the explosion at the oil rig; the DepSec of Interior was there the next day, and coordination with local officials and with BP have been constant from the beginning.

So that ought to be enough about that.

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  1. collapse expand

    You hit the spin right on, Paul! I can’t tell you how many times in almost 5 years that I’ve heard conservatives and libertarians yell that Katrina was something that should have been handled by the locals. This in spite of the fact that it was larger than 9/11, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Northridge California earthquake and the San Diego firestorms combined.

    Now these same folks, many led by Rush Limbaugh are saying that the oil spill, which is the fault of a private corporation IS suddenly the responsibility of the Federal Government. How hypocritical can they get? And to think in 2008 how many right wing media members lied that Katrina didn’t cause any oil spills and therefore we should be expanding oil drilling in the Gulf.

    Paul Harris
    Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”

  2. collapse expand

    It is his Katrina, but not in the sense that people like Matt Drudge believe:

    http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/obamas-katrina/

  3. collapse expand

    OMG! How long were those levies there? Why not blame FDR? He was probably president when they were built. I’m so tired of this piling on when it comes to GWB and other previous administrations. Do you believe either of the Bush’s or Clinton are to blame for 9/11? Move on it’s over, what about Hoover, (a republican) have you ever forgiven him for causing the “Great Depression”? Let’s back off and take a deep breath, then realize the POTUS has very little impact on the day to day events that occur during their administration. An administrations deeds or impact usually can only be judged by their long term effects on our country.

    • collapse expand

      Also why would anyone want to live below sea level with only a levy between them and impending doom? Well maybe the Dutch but we all know how crazy they are.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        All due respect mr, but come on- Although, I would like to see Conservatives accept a little, just a little, responsibility for the ineptitude and mendacity of the Bush administration, well, I don’t believe in miracles. But to say that the Executive Branch doesn’t have a vast amount of power to shape a lot of day-to-day events- especially things over which it has pretty total authority, like diaster relief- is just plain silly. As for NOLA’s personal responsibility for it’s vulernability, why stop there? Do you expect LA to move off of the San Andreas fault, or St Louis to move out of the New Madrid earthquake zone? Maybe Miami should move north, and Kansas should get out of Tornado Alley.

        (As for the Dutch, I’m reminded ofr a Nativist Rally song of the 1880’s-

        “The Dutch! The Dutch!
        The dirty rotten Dutch!
        They don’t amount to much-
        but they’re A DAMN SIGHT BETTER THAN THE IRISH!”

        Just a reminder that everybody was an immigrant once. And the Dutch are sane enough to keep their critical public works in tip-top condition. Unlike some countries.)

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Yeah! What did they expect– that the entity whose job it is to maintain the levees, and to which they’ve been paying taxes to do so, would actually do the job and enable N.O. residents to live safely in their own homes? The sense of entitlement of some people is just mind-boggling! While we’re at it, let’s get everybody out of California, where earthquakes are a risk. And New York– Homeland Security says #2 risk of major disaster is a hurricane in NY. And anywhere else a hurricane might hit, while we’re at it. Or a tornado, or a forest fire. Then we can all live…where exactly? (Did everybody get that this is dripping with sarcasm?)
        But seriously: I wasn’t arguing POTUS’ ability to affect events; I was arguing POTUS’ ability to prepare for and react to such events. 100s of 1000s of Orleanians are still living with the long term effects of Bush’s failures in that regard.
        And yes, I do blame WJC in part for 9/11, though he did a lot more than GWB to prevent it (e.g., actually attacked al Qaeda before they attacked us on our soil), and he wasn’t on the job when the last and most stark warning came, which was in the Presidential Daily Briefing of 8/6/01.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      The blame is not for the levee’s that failed, it is for the damaging-non response. Try not to mix up the two. W fiddled while Rome burned.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Since when have the Feds been responsible for a private corporation cleanup after a disaster?!

    Assuming that is almost as bad as begging for Gov’t created jobs then WHINING about a Gov’t that’s too big…

    The extreme right, aka Fox, etc., are just DYING for a way to bash Obama, and this is just more proof. Unfortunately (for them and us), Obama is horribly moderate.

    I don’t understand why people get so edgy when we talk about the unaccomplishments of G.W. Bush….it’s like reality upsets their selective memories of better days gone by….

    BP COMPLETELY lied about the impact this accident would have, and the rate at which oil was leaking.

    This is going to DEVASTATE fisheries and shrimping, etc., and all the right can think about is WHO to put the blame on……because the right would NEVER place blame on their beloved oil lobby….

    A $500,000 fixture would’ve prevented this ENTIRE fiasco. BP and the rig company are solely accountable, nobody else.

  5. collapse expand

    Your term ‘link-baiting headline(Is it yours?) should be brought to people’s attention more often. I seldom bother to respond to or sometime’s even to read the article after realizing one has little to do with the other. I think it would make a good article to show how bad the problem is. The writers and editors are lazy and/or incompetent. All the effort is consumed by the link-baiting headline. It is a way to make you stay longer at a site and develops ad revenue, ergo, incongruousness.

  6. collapse expand

    This oil spill definitely is NOT Obama’s Katrina; I know that because I have yet to see this man get that glazed, ‘deer-in-the-headlight’ look.

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    About Me

    I've been writing and editing for national magazines for 11 years, the last few specializing in environmental journalism, with additional experience producing daily news for, and appearing as a commentator on, public radio, and editing and managing a website.

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    Contributor Since: April 2009
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