Richard Greene

A double standard of blame for failures in response to disaster

George W. and Laura Bush and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, far left, pose for a selfie with Asia Muhaimin, right, Aug. 28 in New Orleans.
George W. and Laura Bush and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, far left, pose for a selfie with Asia Muhaimin, right, Aug. 28 in New Orleans. AP

In launching its coverage of the 10th anniversary of the nation’s biggest natural disaster, The New York Times got all the way through three sentences before reprising the customary depiction of former President George W. Bush.

The media’s characterization of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina has focused on blame, incompetence and failure.

After Katrina, it wouldn’t be too long before new headlines would proclaim the next big calamity. Here are some samples from newspapers across the country:

“This is terrible”; “Cities in the path did little to prepare for floods”; “No relief from misery in sight”; “Stabbed in the back”; “Hell and high water”; “Residents on roofs await rescue”; “Millions without power.”

Dramatic pictures revealed incredible property damage with entire neighborhoods laid waste, homes drowned in floodwaters, fires spreading, desperate people without help and chaos everywhere.

Stories ran for weeks describing arguments among public officials, the utter incompetence and failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, broken promises and some declarations that the situation on the ground was far worse than the media were reporting.

One resident of her beachfront home described two weeks without electricity after having fled to the third floor of her house, praying in damp darkness without help.

Are these accounts of the terrible conditions in the Katrina experience? No. The preceding four paragraphs are samples of descriptions of the devastation and failure of government following Hurricane Sandy, which slammed the country’s Northeastern states in October 2012.

So why is it that experiences with a natural disaster in New York and New Jersey that were so similar to those in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast seven years earlier haven’t amended the repetition of how the Bush administration didn’t respond as it should have?

Lessons learned from Katrina were supposed to prevent human misery in future storms, yet they weren’t sufficient to produce a much different experience. Why don’t we just recognize that disasters of such magnitude (with Katrina devastation being substantially greater than that of Sandy) will always overwhelm the government, regardless of its preparedness?

I’ve never seen any objective comparisons of the two presidents’ actions. They were really quite similar, even though President Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy had the advantage of learning how to avoid the criticism that his predecessor had to endure. And, of course, he enjoyed the benefit of being championed in almost all things by his media friends.

Both presidents coordinated response from the White House through their several agencies before going to the scene of the disaster. Obama did so sooner than Bush — by about a day and a half — then returned to campaigning the following day.

Both presidents received commendation of their administration’s response from governors of the states shattered by the hurricanes. In fact, Bush’s now-infamous comment in support of FEMA’s Michael Brown came at a news conference following glowing compliments of Brown’s work from the governors of Mississippi and Alabama.

Both presidents assured the governors of the availability of all federal resources when requested, reviewed evacuation orders with them and had joined in efforts to get people to leave the area before the deadly winds arrived.

The liberal media’s unfair characterization of Bush’s handling of Katrina continues a full decade later, regardless of the clear record of the heroic efforts of local, state and federal officials and legions of tireless volunteers to deal with an impossible challenge.

It must be very satisfying for Bush to have been so enthusiastically received by New Orleans residents when he and Laura returned there last week to mark Katrina’s 10th anniversary and to celebrate with them the extraordinary recovery of that great city — just as he had promised.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.