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The president was on vacation, all right--vacation from his duty

September 18, 2005 1:06 am

WE HAVE BEEN told that President Bush is not entirely to blame for the poor response to the suffering and devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, there is plenty of blame to divvy up among the officials who are elected to plan ahead for troubled times.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency two days before the hurricane's arrival, then refused to acquiesce to federal control--though the president didn't need her OK. Charges that she and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had made inadequate preparations must be addressed.

However, when a widespread area is beset with the most destructive natural disaster in the nation's history, one might expect local and even state officials to be hamstrung and overwhelmed. That is why we have the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That is also why we have a president, the commander in chief, who we count on to take charge and to feel our pain. He seemed to be trying to do that, finally, in a speech from New Orleans on Wednesday night.

Being the man at the top is a really hard job, of course, and President Bush was taking some vacation time three weeks ago in California as the hurricane approached the Gulf of Mexico coast. On Sunday night, Aug. 28, Katrina had reached Category 5 status with 165-mile-per-hour winds.

On Monday morning, Aug. 29, the storm was making landfall, swinging just east of New Orleans, as a still-mean Category 4. But President Bush had more presidential stuff to do in California, like make a speech about immigration issues out there.

Later Monday, as water began to flow over New Orleans' 17th Street Canal levee, the precursor to an actual breach, the president headed to Arizona to bring a birthday cake to Sen. John McCain, a fellow Republican who hasn't always been the president's biggest fan. After cake, President Bush visited an Arizona senior-citizen resort to discuss his Medicare plan.

By 4 p.m. Monday, there was a bit of calm after the storm in New Orleans. Maybe the levees would hold, and the flooding would be minor. But there were reports already coming in that coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi had been wiped off the face of the earth. So the president returned to California to visit more seniors and once again pitch his Medicare plan.

After a big day of being president, and all that birthday cake, the president needed his sleep. Tuesday was going to be a very busy day.

First thing, at 11 a.m., he headed out to the U.S. Naval Air Station at Coronado--it's a delightful spot near San Diego, if you've never been there--to speak about "progress" in Iraq at a V-J Day commemoration.

During the same function, he was a-pickin' and a-grinnin' for a while with country singer Mark Willis, who presented the president with a custom-made guitar.

Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, the levees broke after all, and the city was filling with water. Mobs of looters were taking what they wanted and taking control of the city. Law enforcement was virtually nonexistent. It was so bad that cops were going AWOL--not that there's any excuse for that, considering that on Sept. 11, 2001, New York cops were running into the burning twin towers.

As Tuesday descended into Wednesday and then Thursday, tens of thousands of New Orleans residents were discovering that the Superdome, with holes in its roof and no power or air conditioning, was not exactly the safe haven they were counting on it to be. Rapes, robberies and a suicide were reported. No water or food was made available. The toilets quit working. The buses that were anticipated never showed up. Similar conditions were being reported at the New Orleans Convention Center, where thousands more were being herded and housed. Local government ceased functioning.

But Mr. President seemed oblivious to the magnitude of these events. He had decided sometime Tuesday that a task force to coordinate the hurricane response would be an excellent idea, and he would rush back to Washington to take charge.

Wednesday afternoon should be soon enough. His vacation was already being cut short.

So on Tuesday he flew from California to Crawford to savor his last night back at the ranch.

En route to Washington on Wednesday, Air Force One took a detour to fly over the storm-ravaged area so the president could get a good look at the devastation and feel the region's pain--from 2,000 feet.

Finally, at 5 p.m., the president addressed the nation on Katrina from the Rose Garden, with his trademark vacant look. The New York Times described it this way: "Nothing about the president's demeanor--which seemed casual to the point of carelessness--suggested that he understood the depth of the current crisis."

Thank goodness the president had one of his key lieutenants, soon-to-be-canned Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown, on the scene. On Wednesday evening Brown had this keen insight: "I must say, this storm is much, much bigger than anyone expected." A day later Brown said he had received "no reports of unrest."

The day after that, President Bush praised the FEMA director: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Well, I have a Brownie at my house--the Girl Scout kind--who had a better grasp of the situation than Michael Brown.

Scarier still is that Brown's boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was just as clueless: "I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water," he said on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, The Washington Post reported this presidential quote: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

The proper statement would have been, "I think everybody anticipated the breach of the levees--except me."

The president had previously slashed funding for levee improvements, and The Times-Picayune had reported in a highly publicized series about the threat a major storm would present to the levee system.

On Friday, five days after the storm, the president made his first visit to the hurricane-ravaged region.

It's not hard to see why the president is being criticized in the hurricane's aftermath. Some have charged that the slow response suggests President Bush doesn't care about black people. That's not fair. It's black people who are poor and vote Democratic that he doesn't appear to care about.

No, the poor response to Hurricane Katrina wasn't all the president's fault, but it was a Xerox copy of him and his administration: Inept, unprepared, uninformed, lackadaisical, unaware, and untruthful. The Bush presidency has been in over its head ever since the first plane hit the north tower.

Thankfully this is America, and this real-life Alfred E. Neuman will be out of office in 2008. Has three years ever seemed such an eternity?

In the meantime, we have mid-term elections in 2006 that allow Americans to send a message on how they think the president is doing. That message should be loud and clear.

In Katrina's wake, people have been asking how they can help. First, they should send a donation to a legitimate charity. Then, if your car has a Bush bumper sticker on it, grab a Sharpie and put a big X through it.

And another thing: Somebody remind the president that daddy's not always going to be around to help make things right.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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