Hurricane Katrina and the Politics of Disaster

Flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. Image via Flickr

On August 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina came ashore at Bay St. Louis, Miss., Air Force One flew low over the Gulf Coast to give President George W. Bush a view of the damage. The photographs of Bush peering out the plane window became a symbol of the federal government’s ineffectual response to one of the worst storms in American history.

The contrast between the lackluster response to Katrina and Bush’s take-charge leadership in the wake of 9/11 could not have been more stark. The Bush who stood before the rubble in New York, bullhorn in hand, had been replaced by a president who thought the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its overwhelmed leader, Michael Brown, were doing “a heck of a job.”

Voters, already turning skeptical over the mismanaged war in Iraq, blamed Bush for the unfolding disaster in New Orleans. Bush’s approval rating hit 45 percent in Gallup surveys the month after Katrina; they never again reached that high. The number of Americans who said the country was headed off on the wrong track rose north of 60 percent, and stayed even higher for the rest of Bush’s presidency.

Source: Gallup

Source: Gallup

Bush realized his mistake: “[W]hen the pictures were released, I realized that I had made a serious mistake,” Bush wrote in his 2010 memoir. “The photo of me hovering over the damage suggested I was detached from the suffering on the ground.”

The limp federal response to such a devastating storm highlighted, once again, that politicians can be felled by failure to act. Debilitating snowstorms have ended careers of a dozen mayors and governors; slow cleanup after a deadly tornado costs an incumbent’s party at the polls, according to political science research.

By contrast, bold action can have a political payoff. While Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) relied on the weak federal response to Katrina, Mississippi’s governor at the time, Haley Barbour, spent the days after the storm present in local communities. Blanco did not seek re-election in 2007; Barbour won re-election that year with 58 percent of the vote.

Ten years later, the history of Hurricane Katrina infuses the administration of Bush’s successor. The Obama White House is keenly aware of the political threat a natural disaster poses.

Where Bush picked a Washington lobbyist to head his disaster management agency, President Obama turned to Craig Fugate, who managed Florida’s disaster relief agency at a time when the state was hit by seven major hurricanes (Fugate was appointed director of Florida’s agency by the state’s then-governor, Jeb Bush).

Fugate has frequently traveled to disaster areas, a pointed contrast with Bush’s administration. His agency has emphasized quick response times, at times so much so that Brown once criticized Obama for approving disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy so immediately. “Better to be fast than late,” Fugate snapped in reply.

(A case in point demonstrating the Obama administration’s apparent bias toward action: This month alone, Obama has signed nine disaster declarations freeing up federal assistance to those impacted by wildfires in Washington State alone.)

The White House has also been keen to get Obama himself on the ground after major disasters, even in states where there is little obvious political benefit. Obama has visited towns devastated by tornadoes in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri in recent years.

Even after the most notable failing of Obama’s emergency management track record, the aftermath of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that send millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the White House wanted to make a point of Obama’s presence: In August, just after the well was capped, the First Family vacationed in Panama City, Fla., where Obama and his daughter swam in the Gulf.

A decade after Hurricane Katrina plunged the final dagger in President George W. Bush’s political fortunes, New Orleans continues to rebuild. Obama’s aides learned from Bush’s failure, and offer a guide to whichever candidate will replace him in 2017.

Morning Consult