If Only Bush Had Landed In New Orleans

President Bush meets New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin following a news conference at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, Friday, Sept. 2, 2005. Bush is touring the Gulf Coast communities battered by Hurricane Katrina, hoping to boost the spirits of increasingly desperate storm victims and exhausted rescuers. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) AP

Hurricane Katrina caused the greatest natural disaster in American history. President Bush couldn't change that. But Katrina also was a political disaster for the president. And Bush, given a year to think about it, realizes he could have avoided that.

What might the president have done differently? At least three things, starting with his decision two days after the levees broke — and New Orleans began to flood — to fly over the city in Air Force One without landing. Bush now knows he should have landed.

That he didn't a year ago was perfectly understandable. The New Orleans airport had only one runway open and it was clogged with planes bringing in emergency supplies to the city, 80 percent of which was under water. The president would have had to go by helicopter around the city and region, and all the choppers were still on rescue missions. And he might have gotten in the way of emergency crews.

Moreover, the Secret Service thought it was too dangerous in New Orleans for Bush to tour the damage. So Air Force One merely dipped to give Bush a look from the air and then flew on to Washington, leaving the impression that the president didn't care much about the plight of New Orleans, a predominantly black city, and its people.

In hindsight, Bush had another option which now seems obvious at the White House. He could have landed in New Orleans, stayed at the airport, talked to a few leaders and citizens, expressed his concern for the city and the entire region, and then flown to Washington without having interfered with emergency operations. His appearance on the ground would have prevented the unfair criticism that he'd settled for a fly-over because he didn't care about blacks.

A second avoidable mistake involved the reluctance of Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to declare a mandatory evacuation of the city. Federal emergency officials urged Nagin to evacuate the city before Katrina hit. Bush personally called the mayor on the morning of the hurricane to press him to require all residents to leave. However, the president did not go public with a plea for an immediate and full evacuation.

He should have. Bush and his aides realize he was far too deferential to Nagin and the governor. He should have lobbied them publicly, not just privately. This was a bit out of character for a president who believes in federal power and what it can achieve. Federalism and the law, though, left it to local and state officials to force an evacuation and manage it. They failed on both counts and made the bad situation in New Orleans breathtakingly worse.

  • Jennifer Hoar

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