A week ago, President George W. Bush was standing against a backdrop of US warships in San Diego, praising the bravery of his soldiers in the war on terror and insisting that “we will not rest until victory is America’s and our freedom is secure”. He mentioned only briefly the hurricane that had hit New Orleans overnight.
Within hours it became clear, though, that the country faced a disaster that will almost certainly surpass September 11 2001 in lives lost, families and businesses ruined and the national economy shaken. As with September 11, a long introspection is likely on why the most powerful government in the world was unable to protect its citizens.
Tragedy and its aftermath have defined Mr Bush’s presidency. When he came to office in early 2001, he was the untested son of a president, elected by a minority of the voters after a campaign in which he promised little in the way of change. His response in rallying the country after the worst foreign attack on American soil defined him as a war president. His narrow re-election last year came almost entirely because voters trusted him to prevent a repetition of that harrowing morning.
Since then, rising petrol prices and growing casualties in Iraq have been pushing his popularity rating to a low. Now he again has to deal with a catastrophe of great magnitude. Refugees stranded by Hurricane Katrina continued to be rescued yesterday but the death toll is likely to number in the thousands – some of whom perished not in the storm but in the days afterwards, when they were stranded without food, drink or sanitation as fouled flood waters rose and the grand old city of New Orleans fell into violence and anarchy.
“Nothing approximates it in the history of our country,” said Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, who accompanied nearly every top official in the administration to the region over the weekend.
The reckoning after Katrina is likely to be divisive for the US. After September 11 it was easy to focus the country on the enemy abroad. Even after national investigations revealed missed opportunities to thwart the terror attacks against New York and Washington, the country’s anger remained aimed at Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the governments that harboured them. Support for Mr Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism has consistently remained his strongest appeal with the public.
The response to the hurricane will prove a much tougher test. Before the arrival of military convoys in New Orleans last Friday and the expansion of relief operations over the Labor Day long weekend, the image seared into the minds of American television viewers was of residents, most of them poor and black, pleading for help that did not rapidly come. Leaders of Congress, which returned ahead of schedule on Friday to approve $10.5bn in emergency aid, are calling for hearings into why the response to the hurricane was so slow and inadequate. Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman, who were instrumental in the creation of the commission that investigated the September 11 attacks, have set the first hearing for tomorrow to investigate “the lack of preparedness and inadequate response to this terrible storm”.
Many questions will be asked in the weeks to come as the country struggles to help the living, bury the dead and rebuild. Why were emergency authorities so ill-prepared for a disaster that had been thoroughly anticipated? Why was it the poor and black who bore the brunt of the storm while those better off heeded the order to evacuate? And will Mr Bush, as he did after September 11, recover politically from a shell-shocked response in the first two days after the hurricane hit or will there be lasting repercussions for his presidency and for the Republican party?
The most popular word for federal officials in the week since the storm has been “unprecedented”. Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security and a terrorism expert, said: “There is nobody who has ever seen or dealt with a catastrophe on this scale in this country. It has never happened before. No matter what the planning was in advance, we were presented with an unprecedented situation.”
However, hurricane researchers and engineers had long warned that a Category 4 storm, with winds of at least 140mph (224km/h), would damage the levees surrounding New Orleans and leave the bowl in which it sits filled with water, in some places as much as 20ft (6.1m) deep. In 2004, nearly half the area’s residents evacuated as Hurricane Ivan, which hit the US as a strong Category 3 storm with winds of 130mph, approached New Orleans before veering away and striking more sparsely populated areas of Alabama.
Shirley Laska of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans wrote in the aftermath of Ivan that the city had narrowly escaped disaster. Had it struck directly, she predicted, the result would have been massive flooding and damages exceeding $100bn – which is indeed the initial estimate of the damage that Katrina has caused.
Critics cite a host of problems that delayed the rescue effort. “Federal resources were pre-deployed but not nearly enough,” says Jane Bullock, former chief of staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She believes the poor response was primarily due to the reorganisation of the disaster response system. With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, Fema lost its cabinet status and became an adjunct to an agency focused on terrorism.
As recently as last year, there was a drill involving state, local and federal officials – preparing for a fictional Category 5 hurricane called Pam. The lessons learnt were simply not applied, says Ms Bullock. “We knew that about 120,000 of the people who needed to be evacuated did not have cars, so we would need to position buses. The buses were not there. We knew that the levees would be under heavy stress and so we should position barges with pumps up the Mississippi in preparation for flooding. This was not done. We knew that the Superdome would be used as a refuge of last resort so we should pre-position food and medical supplies. They were not there.
“There was a lack of leadership,” she says. “Nobody pulled the trigger to get those resources there. The situation got much better when the troops arrived. But they could have been there on the first day instead of the fifth day.”
Federal officials insist the response was as prompt as it could have been under the circumstances. While emergency rescuers and supplies were in position, they said, they had to be kept well out of the way of a hurricane that measured more than 250 miles across. Lt Gen Russel Honoré, the army commander who took control of the relief effort, said on Sunday that the logistical problems were formidable. “It covered Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and it killed people as far as Georgia with tornadoes,” he said. “That entire group of people that was coming to help had to recover themselves. And you had the time and space of moving those assets here.”
Mr Chertoff said that, under the circumstances, the only way to protect the residents of New Orleans was for them to evacuate. Once the city was flooded, it was “going to be almost impossible to get people out”.
For those left behind, the city became a Hobbesian nightmare. Tens of thousands who made their way to the football stadium and convention centre on higher ground were left without food or water, their conditions made worse by looting and violence that scared police and would-be rescuers off entering the city.
Those old enough to remember Hurricane Betsy in 1965 – which killed 81 people in the city – are furious that no lessons have been learnt. Augusta Elmwood, whose house has waters lapping at its porch, recalls that for Betsy she was evacuated to the municipal auditorium – where there were murders and rape, just as happened in the convention centre last week. “History is repeating itself and we are just not learning,” she says.
That most of those abandoned to the storm were African-Americans has rubbed the naked wound of racial politics in the country more than any incident since white Los Angeles police officers in 1992 beat senseless a black man named Rodney King, triggering violent race riots in Los Angeles.
“It’s so glaring that the great majority of people crying out for help are poor, they’re black,” Democratic congressman John Lewis of Georgia wrote in yesterday’s edition of Newsweek. “There’s a whole segment of society that’s being left behind.” Ray Nagin, the black mayor of New Orleans, was left to shout obscenities over the failure of federal officials to bring aid to his city, reflecting the helplessness that engulfed many of its residents.
Two days after the storm, Mr Bush returned to Washington after spending most of August mountain-biking and brush-cutting at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. On the way, pilots brought Air Force One, the Boeing 747 that carries the president, down to 1,700ft over the Gulf coast so he could survey the damage. It was not until two days later that he visited the region, as military vehicles made it through to New Orleans to begin evacuating the stranded.
But even by last Friday, he seemed to lack the commanding voice that he found in the days after September 11. His attempts to inject optimistic humour into the aftermath of the storm at times appeared callous. As tens of thousands of black Americans awaited rescue in New Orleans, he quipped that “out of the rubble of Trent Lott’s house – he’s lost his entire house – there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch”. Mr Lott, the former House Republican leader from Mississippi, was ousted from the job in 2002 after suggesting the US would have been better off if it had elected Strom Thurmond, the late senator who ran for president in 1948 on a platform of maintaining segregation in the south.
In New Orleans there is no shortage of people willing to share their thoughts with Mr Bush if he dared to venture into the heart of the storm. “I’d like to spit on him,” says Jack Kronk, a tourist from Michigan who expresses incomprehension that the city abandoned its lifeblood by leaving visitors to their fate.
Yet Kathleen Blanco, the Democratic Louisiana state governor, is also under fire, accused of inadequate preparations and not inviting federal troops into the state soon enough to impose security. Mr Nagin has also been criticised because his police force crumbled in the face of adversity.
Unlike in the aftermath of September 11, whatever blame is eventually laid at Mr Bush’s door will be hard to share with previous administrations. The disaster response plan was conceived by the Department of Homeland Security, created by his administration to ensure that America would be able to deal with the aftermath of another terrorist attack. Newt Gingrich, the former House Republican speaker, said the failed response “puts into question all of the homeland security Ã¢Â€Â¦ planning for the last four years, because if we can’t respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the gulf for days, then why do we think we’re prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?”
The consequences of Katrina are also being felt more broadly in the country. Americans were grumbling about high petrol prices before the hurricane. In its wake they have shot up, and the many months it will take to rebuild the oil infrastructure in the region means relief is unlikely to come soon.
Mr Bush yesterday made a second trip to the region, travelling to Baton Rouge to view efforts to deal with the refugee crisis created by the devastation of New Orleans. His image as a bold and decisive leader has been at least tarnished and, like the city, it may take a long time to recover.
Additional reporting by Guy Dinmore and Christopher Swann