A Look Back: The Decisions of Katrina

The decisions of Katrina

The following is excerpted from the book Masters of Disaster: The Political and Leadership Lessons of America’s Greatest Disasters.

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      Like all hurricanes, Katrina began as a disturbance in the Atlantic, a collection of tropical depressions and troughs and circulations and waves that was first noticed by the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) around August 14. [1]

      Katrina hopscotched over Florida, gained strength and power in the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall on Aug. 29 at 6:10 am at Buras, La., a small town on Plaquemines Parish’s long, narrow peninsula. She was a Category 4 monster that crushed the town and began a march northward, sending a massive storm surge before her.

      Katrina’s swath of destruction spread outward; at her fiercest she was 460 miles across and created havoc from Louisiana across the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf coasts. She declined in intensity once she reached land, dropping from a Category 4 to a Category 3 but she moved at an agonizingly slow 12 to 15 miles per hour, ensuring that she would stay long enough to fully ravage the land.

      She made several landfalls as she crossed the Plaquemines peninsula, went out over Lake Borgne and then made landfall again, for the last time, in Mississippi. From there she proceeded northward along the length of the state.

      Katrina actually missed the city of New Orleans, the eye of the hurricane passing to the east of the city. But the storm caused a surge that sent water cascading over floodwalls that protected the city, which sits below sea level, and breached levees that kept the waters back under normal circumstances. Some 80 percent of the city flooded.

      The physical destruction of New Orleans was bad enough. But Katrina was a political and human catastrophe as well.

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      As darkness descended on a prostrate and flooding New Orleans that first night after Katrina’s landfall, what also descended on the city was as true and pure a state of anarchy as has ever been experienced by human beings on the American continent.

      The word “anarchy” has its origins in ancient Greek. The “an” means “without.” The “archy,” can be derived from the term “archos” (leader) or “arky” (power, in the sense of authority). It is a state of chaos, lawlessness and disorder. The term is often used casually and unthinkingly and without a full appreciation of the depth of its meaning.

      No other American disaster or cataclysm quite compares with Katrina. Not Chicago during the fire of 1871, or San Francisco in 1906 or the Boston police strike of 1919 or any of the other disasters that have befallen Americans during their history.

      It was anarchy on many levels.

      The city’s leadership was trapped either in a Hyatt Hotel or else in the city hall emergency operations center (EOC) and had few if any means of communication. There was little to no way to give orders or get a real sense of what was going on in the city.

      The city’s 1,668 police officers were scattered, some isolated in district stations, others in hotels and hospitals or with their families and unable to move. Lacking communications, they had no means of reaching their commanders. Many were out of uniform and even if they did try to perform their duty they lacked this essential badge of authority. Many simply failed to report for duty or drove their police cruisers to safety in Texas. (When the accounting was done it turned out that 90 percent had remained on the job and 147 failed to report for duty.[2])

      Personnel from the Louisiana National Guard were as helpless as anyone else. Prior to the storm the Guard deployed to Jackson Barracks, an 1834 military base, along with its equipment and vehicles. Located in the Lower Ninth Ward, the barracks flooded along with everything else, rendering the Guardsmen immobile.

      The municipal government had established the Superdome, a large sports stadium, as its shelter of last resort. Into this building poured about 20,000 people, the city’s poorest, most disabled, most helpless population. There were supplies on hand there, but not enough and though the building largely weathered the worst of the storm, panels were torn off the roof and holes appeared, allowing water to pour in on a largely helpless population, who were hearing and re-telling rumors of rapes, murders and crime.

      With no authority in evidence, people who rode out the storm emerged from their homes and began looting. Some of it was opportunistic but in other cases it was a case of desperate people trying to find food and necessary supplies unobtainable in any other way.

Whatever their motivation, people descended on stores, smashing windows and carting away any goods they could seize. The vast majority of the looters were poor Blacks who had been unable or unwilling to evacuate. Videos of the looting show scenes of utter bedlam and chaos with people filling shopping carts with piles of goods and rampaging through store aisles. Those police available tried to stop them—or in some cases joined them or ignored them. In one video, as the photographer asks a policeman in a cruiser why he isn’t stopping the looting, the policeman smirks and just rolls up the window.

      There was gunfire all over the city. In one case, police Lt. Joe Meisch and three other officers holed up in the Algiers section of the city lived on what they could scrounge from a looted Walmart and put gas in their cars by rigging a pump to an underground gas tank powered by a car battery. When they arrested looters they tied them up with duct tape taken from the Walmart after they ran out of handcuffs. Officer Kevin Thomas was shot in the head as he and other officers battled looters at a convenience store.

      “This place was hell on earth,” Meisch, a former Marine Corps sergeant, later recalled. “I was looking at a piece of Kevin Thomas’ brain on the concrete, shot in a fight over potato chips and beer.” Gunfire would range out of the darkness all around the embattled policemen. “We’d return fire and then send out a patrol to see if we hit anything, like it was Vietnam,” he said.[3]

      There was so much shooting that police ran out of ammunition and, if they could, called into the EOC, desperate to get resupplied.

      All the modern infrastructure of modern life was destroyed. There was no electricity in New Orleans, so vast swaths of the city were in complete darkness. In the Superdome the temperature started to rise amidst the humidity of the weather and the hot, cloying atmosphere of over 20,000 unwashed bodies baking without air circulation created a stench and a climate that people found unpleasant at first—and unbearable later. High-rise buildings, like the Hyatt, also lacked cooling and ventilation.

      The sewerage and water systems had failed. Toilets didn’t function or backed up. In the Superdome people began defecating in hallways and stairwells. Even in the elegant Hyatt Hotel, Sally Forman, the mayor’s communications director, was horrified to find herself sliding through someone’s diarrhea on a stairwell.

As time went on and the chaos deepened, people descended into a primitive state, shedding the veneer of civilization. Looters began defecating in the stores they ransacked, in the cash registers, on bartops, in fat fryers and in aisles. It became known as “the big dump” and it was an expression of fury and contempt.

      “They behaved like animals,” said Lamar Montgomery, owner of a Shell gas station, who returned to discover their mark on the shelves of his mini-mart and in his store refrigerator. “They were making a statement: ‘Shit on you.’”[4]

      As well as flood, New Orleans suffered from fire as sparks ignited buildings that were surrounded by floodwaters and could not be reached by firefighters. Natural gas bubbled up from broken mains and caught fire on the surface of the slimy waters, weirdly burning on the lakes created by the broken levees.

      In those fetid waters bodies floated, unrecovered and unknown, casualties of the storm, along with pets, animals and snakes.

      Those residents who survived the initial deluge fled flooded buildings and floated on rafts or swam or walked through the rising waters in search of rescue or refuge. Survivors headed toward the battered and overcrowded Superdome, hoping to find food, shelter—anything. Those who couldn’t reach that building huddled without food or water on highway overpasses that remained the only dry spots around.

 

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American government is remarkably resilient. The federal, state and local components support each other like the legs of a stool. It’s a secret of American success, rarely appreciated but almost always strong in a crisis. When one element of government fails, another—or two others—can step in. Whether settling a wild western frontier, fighting a war or confronting a disaster, American government at all levels has held up extraordinarily well.

But it’sthat very strength that made the experience of Hurricane Katrina horrifyingly unique in the annals of American disasters. It appeared that government at all levels had failed. None seemed able to save the others.

To understand the tragedy of the Katrina response and derive its lessons, one must ask first: What, exactly, was the failure?

      The failure was simply this: That American citizens were left desperate and deprived of fundamental human necessities like food and water in the wake of a major disaster and their governments—federal, state and local—did not come to their aid immediately despite being capable of doing so. President Bush put it well in his memoir, Decision Points: Despite acts of selflessness and heroism, “Katrina conjures impressions of disorder, incompetence, and the sense that government let down its citizens.”

      Journalist Brian Williams, who rode out the storm in the Superdome before escaping the city, also put it well: “I couldn’t believe that people were starving and going without water in the United States, for lack of an air drop. There was absolutely nothing that would lead you to believe this was the United States.  It didn’t feel like we were home.”

      By 2005, the American people expected disaster relief to be delivered swiftly and effectively to those suffering. The United States government had the means and the resources to do it and the public could not understand why those means and resources werenot deployed as soon as physically possible. Members of the media were as incredulous as the average citizen and could not adequately explain it to their viewers and readers. Elected executives—President George W. Bush, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin—and government managers—Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency—were unable to explain it either and their assurances of care, concern and pending assistance rang increasingly hollow as the days went on and the reality grew distant from their rhetoric.

      The failure of the response in the first week after Katrina made landfall was utterly at odds with Americans’ self-conception as a can-do, caring and effective people. It came at a time when Americans’ self-assurance and fundamental assumptions had been shaken by terrorist attacks in the heart of their greatest cities and a war of questionable necessity was going badly. Now, it seemed, the country could not even adequately respond to a natural event on its own soil in one of its major cities.

 

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The storm itself was horrendous. A White House review, The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned, stated flatly that it was “the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history” and most other observers, official and non-official, agree. It covered 93,000 square miles and its destruction vastly exceeded any previous disaster of any kind. As of May 2006 the estimate was that 1,577 people were killed and 300,000 homes were destroyed, 10 times more than in Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Some 1.7 million people lost electric power. Eight million gallons of oil spewed from 142 spills. The economic loss was estimated at $150 billion.[5]

One of the worst immediate impacts of the storm was its destruction of essential communications for local, state and national officials. Local officials trapped in the Hyatt or the New Orleans EOC spent an enormous amount of time simply trying to communicate electronically. They struggled to find working telephones, whether landline or cellular. It took hours for even a call from the White House to reach Nagin. Information was sporadic at best. The lack of communications crippled command and control and made management of a disaster as enormous and complex as Katrina difficult to impossible. What was more, with the flooding of the city and the violence of the storm, followed by the anarchy in the streets, even primitive communications through couriers was impossible. These were circumstances beyond the control of individual officials and governments.

But clearly the physical impact of the hurricane was compounded by leadership failures. In the storm’s wake mistakes were dissected at length by numerous parties. There was more than enough blame to go around. A 732-page Senate report presented 186 findings and 88 recommendations. A report in the House of Representatives called A Failure of Initiative contained 364 pages of conclusions and analysis. A White House review ran to 228 pages of analysis and recommendations. Lengthy hearings were held as well as dueling press conferences and the arguments have extended into memoirs and autobiographies and keep coming. The fault-finding ran across the entire spectrum of emergency preparedness and response. It went back in time to question the wisdom of building a city below sea level, the levee system, the way levees and dikes were maintained and the nature and workings of all the governments involved.

No one emerged from Hurricane Katrina unscathed; not the people of the United States, the residents of New Orleans, the city itself or the key officials whose decisions determined so much of the fate of the people for whose welfare they were responsible.

But of this incredible array of failures, what were the key decisionmaking points that made the response to Hurricane Katrina such a monumental disaster?

 

Evacuation

 

      The first key decision for elected executives as Katrina loomed was a fundamental one: To evacuate or not? Each individual in the hurricane’s path faced this question. But the officials responsible for the welfare of millions of people in their jurisdictions faced it on an enormous scale and no one faced it more squarely than the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, a man who was otherwise, by almost any measure, an American success story.

      Born in June 1956, Nagin was the progeny of two poor but hardworking and ambitious Black parents determined to make a better life for their children. Nagin’s father worked three jobs and his mother worked at a lunch counter to provide for the family and ensure the children an education.

      Young Nagin absorbed his parents’ values of hard work but he was also athletic, playing baseball and basketball in high school with sufficient talent to win a baseball scholarship to Tuskegee University. There, he gained a degree in accounting.

      With his newly minted degree in hand, Nagin entered the world of business and left poor, ailing New Orleans behind. In Los Angeles, he was employed by General Motors. After that it was on to Dallas, Texas and in 1981 back to his home town where he became controller of the city’s local Cox cable franchise, one of the lowest-performing units in the corporation.

      By dint of hard work and abilityNagin improved the performance of the Cox franchise, learning along the way to navigate the city bureaucracy as he obtained the permits and permissions for the cable monopoly. He also saw first-hand a city and state notorious for its corruption as he lobbied on behalf of Cox.

      While guiding the Cox cable franchise he gained a Master of Business Administration degree at Tulane University, became active in a variety of charities, sat on civic boards and promoted Black businesses. He gained prominence both as the face of Cox and as part owner of a minor league hockey team.

      In 2001, at the age of 46, he chose to jump into politics, spurred by his son’s intention to follow in his father’s footsteps by leaving job-poor New Orleans to find a position elsewhere.[6]

      Nagin was an odd personage in his native city. In a laid-back, relaxed city known for its fun-loving indulgence, easy times and virtually official motto of “laissez les bons temps rouler”—“let the good times roll,”—Nagin was a conservative, business-oriented candidate who espoused the virtues of hard work, self-reliance and independence. He ran as a Democrat in the overwhelmingly Democratic city but his heart seemed to be with conservative Republicans. He was a Black man in a majority Black city but he didn’t fit Black stereotypes in any way or espouse Black conventional wisdom and one Black Baptist bishop denounced him as “a White man in Black skin.” Other critics derided him as “Ray Reagan” and it was said that he didn’t care about Black people.

      “He was all Booker T. Washington, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, with a touch of Hollywood showboating for good measure,” wrote Douglas Brinkley in his book, The Great Deluge.[7]

      But he was also an effective campaigner, winning over the business interests and White voters, countering the negative characterizations with his own “Ray Speak,” a self-described blunt truthfulness, denouncing corruption and cronyism and promising reform and fiscal responsibility. At one point he physically turned down a “Louisiana lunch”—a brown paper bag full of cash, offered as a bribe.

      In the end it all worked for Ray Nagin. After defeating a crowded field in the Feb. 2, 2002 primary, Nagin went on to win a runoff election with 59 percent of the vote. Nagin carried White and upper class Black districts against Richard Pennington, a former police chief, who carried most of the poorer Black neighborhoods.

      With his swearing in on May 6, Nagin went to work. He began his reform efforts by taking on corruption in the city’s Taxicab Bureau and Utilities Department. When told that his own cousin was implicated in schemes involving crooked taxi inspections, he replied “If he’s guilty, arrest him”—a change from New Orleans’ traditional cozy cronyism. However, his most radical campaign promise, to sell Louis Armstrong International Airport to raise money for civic improvements, went nowhere.

That September, Hurricane Ivan formed in the Gulf of Mexico. This storm, whose winds were blowing at a dangerous 165 miles per hour, appeared to be the long-feared “Big One” that would swamp the city.

     Rather than a calm, orderly response, Nagin urged New Orleanians to “grab some Benjamins”—$100 bills—and evacuate. Those that stayed should “have an ax in the attic” so that they could chop their way through the roof if the floodwaters rose too high.

      In the state capital of Baton Rouge, Gov. Kathleen Blanco ordered the state to institute a “contra-flow” plan, turning New Orleans’ incoming lanes of traffic into outbound lanes in order to expedite the evacuation. However, communities hadn’t coordinated their evacuation plans, so drivers poured onto the highways in no particular order, making the situation worse. City residents heeded the evacuation call and pulled their cars into a massive traffic jam that turned into a nightmarish crawl on the highways, trapping some of them for 12 to 24 hours. Meanwhile, the elderly and disabled went to the shelter of last resort, the New Orleans Superdome, a futuristic sports stadium that could hold roughly 70,000 people.

      It all seemed futile and wasteful and foolish when Ivan turned eastward at the last minute and made landfall at Gulf Shores, Alabama. For emergency managers, it was a warning that New Orleans remained dangerously unprepared for the most probable kind of disaster it would face.

      “It was a good, healthy exercise,” Nagin recalled of the storm. While the local media and his critics called it an embarrassment for the mayor, Nagin himself said that it focused attention on contra-flow problems but that he himself experienced no embarrassment. “I think everyone came in for criticism. We have many evacuation scares and storms tend to veer off. After the fact there’s always Monday morning quarterbacking.[8]

 

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      However, the city should have been prepared because the havoc that could be caused by a slow-moving Category 3 hurricane had been foreseen with uncanny prescience the year before.

      In 1998, Hurricane Georges ravaged the Caribbean and dealt a blow to Florida before heading toward New Orleans. It looked like “The Big One”—the much-feared and almost mythic storm that New Orleanians worried would some day drown their low-lying city—was on its way until the storm veered off to the east. It was a near miss but in the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (LOHSEP) a Col. Michael Brown (no relation to FEMA’s Michael Brown) conceived of an exercise that would bring together emergency managers and responders to train for a catastrophic hurricane striking New Orleans.

It took a long time to get the plan in motion. In the Spring of 2001, Joe Allbaugh, then director of FEMA, visited the city and was astonished to learn that there was no federal plan for such an event. When he mentioned that New Orleans needed an evacuation plan, an employee in the city’s emergency management office actually laughed at him and the very notion of moving a million people to safe ground.

      Allbaugh and then his successor, Michael Brown, pushed for a tabletop exercise to model the potential disaster and finally, in 2004, the “Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Plan” became a reality.

      It was a script for “the Big One,” New Orleans’ much-feared and near-mythic killer hurricane.

      In this exercise, the agent of New Orleans’ destruction was called Hurricane Pam. The scenario was relatively simple, if horrifying: A massive, slow-moving Category 3 hurricane moved in on the city of New Orleans. The city flooded, 67,000 people died, 200,000 to 300,000 people needed to be evacuated after landfall and hundreds of thousands more were made homeless. The floodwalls overtopped and 14 to 17 feet of water filled the streets. The shelters filled to capacity and beyond, packed hospitals were unable to care for patients, the elderly or the disabled, while first responders were incapacitated and helpless. And while all this was going on, “situational awareness”—knowledge of the overall situation—was limited to non-existent.

      This was a big, comprehensive exercise. It turned usual practice on its head: instead of taking an existing plan and then testing it against various scenarios, in this instance participants would confront a situation and devise a plan in response. Instead of the federal government coming in after the disaster, writing a check and leaving the locals to figure out how to prevent the next disaster, the exercise would determine what the federal, state and local governments could and could not do and what they needed to do in response.

A key player in putting together the exercise was the firm Innovative Emergency Management (IEM) and its chief executive, Madhu Beriwal, a former Louisiana state official who founded the firm in 1985 to help keep people safe. A short, lively woman, she had consulted on numerous disaster preparations, exercises and actual disaster responses. She and IEM played a key role in shaping the exercise and the Hurricane Pam scenario.

      There were many twists and turns and obstacles on the road to finally holding the exercise, not least of which was finding the funding to conduct it, but finally on July 16, 2004 it commenced. The officials who participated were confronted with stark realities of evacuating populations, searching and rescuing desperate survivors, housing the victims and providing them with medical care and removing the debris from the horrendous destruction.

      Participants had to struggle with the disaster and they received no slack from Col. Brown, who ruled that there would be “no fairy dust”—there would be no conjuring of resources or assets; this would be a brutally realistic exercise. No wishing boats, or ambulances or trucks or—especially—buses into existence. Either participants had the assets or had to find ways to make do if they didn’t. “They were supposed to plan with the resources that were available or that could presumably be brought in. They were not supposed to be thinking that magically 1,000 helicopters would show up and do this,” Beriwal recalled.[9]

      As the participants debated the impact of Hurricane Pam and struggled to develop plans, IEM employees recorded their deliberations. These would be finalized into an overall plan that would guide them if the worst ever happened.

      It was a passionate, exhausting and intense session and when it ended a week later, the attendees had confronted the nightmare of “The Big One” and begun forging a planned, rational response.

      Col. Brown addressed them when it was all over. “He spoke to us about how meaningful and important the exercise was and he was so overcome by emotion that he left the building. He didn’t finish his sentence. He was crying,” according to Beriwal.[10]

      Over 300 participants had gathered to conduct the exercise. There were technicians, people who dealt with the nitty-gritty of emergency response like getting buses and ice and food from one place to another. There were police, fire and rescue specialists and emergency medical managers. Officials came from 15 federal agencies, 20 state agencies, 13 parishes, five volunteer agencies and LOHSEP. There were people from the city of New Orleans department of emergency management. There were FEMA officials from both the regional office and the Washington, DC headquarters.

      Three people did not show up: Mayor Ray Nagin or Governor Kathleen Blanco and certainly not President George W. Bush, although an activity like this exercise would fall way below the threshold for presidential attention in any administration.

      “Mayor Nagin did not attend the Hurricane Pam exercise,” recalled Beriwal. “His emergency management director was integrally involved in the exercise and attended all sessions for local officials.”

When asked by this author about the exercise, Nagin recalled that he was aware of it but that his emergency manager, Terry Ebbert, had been the point person and done all the coordinating. Otherwise, he could recall nothing about it.[11]

“Similarly, Governor Blanco did not attend the Hurricane Pam exercise,” Beriwal continued. “She was informed of it and her emergency preparedness director was involved in the design and conduct of the entire exercise project. Governor Blanco was briefed on the Hurricane Pam exercise about a week prior to the first exercise event, in 2004.

“Unfortunately,” Beriwal noted, with considerable understatement, “it is very difficult to get chief executives at federal, state, and local levels to attend emergency exercises.”[12]

 

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Katrina was first noticed by meteorologists on Tuesday, Aug. 23, when it had consolidated sufficiently to get a designation and number, Tropical Depression 12, as it swirled over the Bahamas. Aircraft were dispatched to measure its winds and strength and meteorologists determined that it was at hurricane strength. On Wednesday the 24th it was given the name Katrina, making it the season’s 11th tropical cyclone.[13]

      That same day Katrina made landfall in southern Florida, a modest Category 1 hurricane that actually weakened over land. But that was just a way station and she crossed the peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico.

The waters of the Gulf of Mexico were extraordinarily warm that summer season. On the west coast of Florida they were warmer than the sultry air over land and felt like a hot bath as early as July.[14] Katrina drew sustenance from that heat and greedily sucked the moisture up into her increasingly rapidly spinning vortex.

Katrina now began to seriously alarm meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center. Her strength and power were growing, rising to Category 2 and showing signs of reaching Category 3. There was a real possibility that she could head toward New Orleans and on the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 26, Blanco declared an emergency in Louisiana and activated the National Guard. In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour did the same thing.

The warnings grew in frequency and urgency. The projected track of the storm kept shifting westward. By 4 am Saturday morning, Aug. 27, the NHC announced that Katrina had reached Category 3 status and predicted a direct hit on New Orleans. In Washington, DC, FEMA headquarters began round-the-clock operations. In a 7:30 am, teleconference between the National Weather Service and affected state officials, a meteorologist predicted that the probable path of the storm ran “smack dab through the metropolitan New Orleans area.”[15]

At 9 am the first phase of the Louisiana Emergency Evacuation Plan began, which evacuated citizens of coastal areas in phases, so that the roads would not become jammed with cars, as had happened during the Hurricane Ivan scare. Then, at 11:41 am, Blanco requested a declaration of a federal state of emergency. Bush issued the declaration later in the day.

In New Orleans, City Hall went into storm preparation mode and Nagin chaired a morning staff meeting. At that meeting, he told city attorney Sherry Landry that a mandatory evacuation needed to be ordered.

“There’s no precedent for this, so it’s going to take time to work out the legal issues involved,” Landry responded. “We particularly have to work out how we handle the hotels.” There followed a discussion of whether the city’s hotels could be forced to evacuate guests.

“Just do it,” Nagin ordered, according to his communications director, Sally Forman. [16] Nagin himself, however, could not recall giving such an order.[17]

Whether he did or not, the city could not “just do it.” A mandatory evacuation had never been ordered. Despite the Hurricane Pam exercise, no one had previously given thought to the meaning of a mandatory evacuation and its execution.

Who would be exempt from the evacuation? It was a question that began to vex the city’s legal staff. Surely essential city staff would have to remain in place but who constituted essential personnel? Should hospitals evacuate? Nursing homes? And what about those hotel guests? Should hotel staff be exempt from the order? Who would enforce the evacuation and how would evacuees be transported? Also, if the order was given and city businesses and hotels lost money and then the hurricane didn’t strike, could the city be sued? The idea of a mandatory evacuation opened up a thicket of legal questions that no one had anticipated.[18]

That afternoon, Nagin announced a state of emergency at a press conference with Blanco. “This is not a test. This is thereal deal,” he told the assembled reporters. “Things could change, but as of right now, New Orleans is definitely the target for this hurricane.” Addressing the city’s residents, he warned “We want you to take this a little more seriously and start moving–right now, as a matter of fact.” He recommended that residents of Algiers, the Lower Ninth Ward, and low-lying areas begin evacuating and announced that the Superdome would be open to those residents with special needs the next morning at 8 am. He warned residents not to bring guns or weapons since they would be confiscated.

But for all its gravity, Nagin felt he could not and did not issue a mandatory evacuation order.

At 5 pm Nagin took to the airwaves again.

“I have issued a voluntary evacuation and urge all people who can leave to leave,” he announced. “I have declared a state of emergency and our legal team is working to determine if we can order a mandatory evacuation without exposing the city to liability. So tomorrow you may have the first mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.”

For all of the strong words—“this is the real deal”—a peculiar lassitude seems to have settled over New Orleans all that Saturday.

“…Saturday turned out to be one of the most pleasant, beautiful days on record,” Nagin would later recall. “There was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was beaming, enticing people outdoors. With a slight breeze periodically blowing, the temperature was just perfect.”[19]

Many people, either expecting the hurricane to behave like another Ivan or planning to ride it out anyway, simply stayed in place. Worse, the New Orleans Saints football team was playing a home pre-season game, actually drawing people into the city.

That night there were parties and drinking in the bars on Bourbon Street. Videos of that night and place show some people boarding up windows but mostly there was the usual Bourbon Street revelry and people casually strolling along, drinking and laughing. That night among the young people in t-shirts and shorts there was knowledge of the storm but no sense of alarm or concern.

People were evacuating, but no one seemed afraid and among municipal officials, no one seems to have displayed urgency. No one’s “hair was on fire,” to use a common saying.

Sally Forman went home and then she and her husband went to a movie.

Ray Nagin went out to dinner with his family at a restaurant called the Steak Knife.

Meanwhile NHC warnings became increasingly urgent and dire. At 7 pm that night the NHC began calling Katrina “dangerous” and pegged her at a Category 3. In Crawford, Bush signed the emergency declaration that allowed Louisiana to use federal resources. It was the first time such a declaration had been made prior to landfall since Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999.

Max Mayfield, the head of the NHC and a widely respected meteorologist, was not as sanguine as New Orleans officials. His hair was on fire as he scanned the readings from the storm and watched it strengthen. He began calling officials, particularly governors of states in the likely impact area, to warn them of the danger.

The most critical official, though, was Ray Nagin and this was one person Mayfield could not reach that night.

Mayfield did succeed in reaching Blanco, however. She was in the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge. Mayfield described the storm in dramatic terms, saying he was “so sorry” to be doing this, but conveying the gravity of the situation.

“Thank you, Max,” Blanco replied. “But you need to speak to Ray Nagin.” Mayfield said he had tried but couldn’t reach him. Blanco told Mayfield that she had Nagin’s cell number and would put him in touch. She called Nagin, reached him at the restaurant, and told him to call Mayfield, which he did.

Mayfield dispensed with any pleasantries. “Mr. Mayor, this is going to be a real big deal and real bad!” Nagin recalled Mayfield telling him. “In my 30-plus years of experience in tracking hurricanes, I have never seen a storm or conditions like this. I’m not sure what has been done but you must get everyone out of the city as soon as you can!”[20]

“[W]hen I got that call, and he was so emphatic and passionate, we had never—this city had never done a mandatory evacuation in its history,” Nagin later recalled. “I immediately called my city attorney and said, ‘Look, in the morning, I don’t care what you have to do. Figure out a way for us to do this.’”[21]

Nagin also texted Sally Forman. A 8:08, while in the theater, she received a message on her Blackberry from the mayor: “Confidential—just talked to the head of the hurricane center and he is very scared for us. The storm surge could be as high as 20 to 25 feet, which would top levees by a lot. He says lots of people will die. I just checked with Sherry and she said we could do a mandatory. My question is should we go hard tonight or in the morning.”

At 10 pm, the NHC put out another, scheduled, advisory in its all-capitals style that began: “…POTENTIALLY CATASTROPHIC HURRICANE KATRINA CONTINUES TO APPROACH THE NORTHERN GULF COAST…”

It also raised its advisory from a hurricane “watch” to a “warning,” meaning the hurricane was definitely coming.

But the mayor still did not issue a mandatory evacuation order. He went on television that night to say that Katrina was “a very serious storm” and “Come the first break of light in the morning, you may have the first mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.”

During the night Landry and the staff drafted and reviewed the mandatory evacuation order. [22]

 

*  *  *

 

When New Orleanians woke up the following morning it was to bad news: around midnight, Katrina had strengthened to Category 4. In Mississippi, a mandatory evacuation was ordered for Hancock County.

If they were awake at 6:15 am they heard worse news: Katrina had reached Category 5, the highest level on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with winds in excess of 155 miles per hour, a speed beyond which buildings simply could not stand.

In Mississippi, Jackson County joined Hancock in ordering a mandatory evacuation. In New Orleans, there was still no word from Nagin.

At 8 am the Superdome was opened to those with special needs like the elderly, disabled or handicapped.

Bush made an emergency declaration for the state of Louisiana as requested by Blanco. The US Northern Command, the military command with responsibility for homeland security, had been alerted. Urban search and rescue teams were on alert. The Louisiana National Guard was mobilized, although it was at half strength because the rest of its personnel were serving overseas and critical equipment like high-water vehicles was with them. Nonetheless, National Guard personnel deployed to Jackson Barracks, its facility in New Orleans.

Supplies were pre-staged, including more than 3.7 million liters of water, 4.6 million pounds of ice, 1.86 million meals ready to eat (MREs), and 33 medical teams.[23] The US Coast Guard was prepared, having put its assets out of harm’s way but ready to intervene as soon as the storm subsided.

However, nothing could move forward without local approval and Blanco was waiting on Nagin. Indeed, the entire response effort hung on his declaration of a mandatory evacuation.

At 9:14 am Bush called Blanco from his ranch in Crawford.

“What’s going on in New Orleans?” he asked. “Has Nagin given the mandatory order?”

Blanco said Nagin had not. “The mayor’s got to order people to leave,” said Bush. “That’s the only way they’ll listen. Call him and tell him. My people tell me this is going to be a terrible storm.”

“They’re not going to be able to get everyone out in time,” Blanco replied. By that time there was a widespread recognition that it was already too late for a complete evacuation.

According to Bush, he asked Blanco if there was anything else she needed and she said she did not. “We’ve got it under control,” she told him. Bush also called Barbour, Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama and his brother Jeb in Florida to check on preparations.[24]

At 9:30 Ray Nagin stood before the press and announced a mandatory evacuation.

“Good morning,” he said. “I wish I had better news but we’re facing the storm most of us have feared. This is going to be an unprecedented event, so today I am ordering a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.”

The only people exempted from the order were essential personnel from the city, the utilities, hospitals, nursing homes, media and hotels. Otherwise, anyone staying was subject to arrest—although there was widespread understanding that such action was unlikely. “You need to be scared. You need to be concerned. And you need to get your butts moving out of New Orleans—right now. This is the storm of the century.” It was, he added, “the mother of all storms.”

People could enter the Superdome but they were likely to be without power for days, he told reporters. “If you do stay in your home, don’t forget an ax to break out of your attic.” And, he added, “If we galvanize together I’m sure we can get through this.”

Blanco then followed Nagin and reinforced his message.

As though to emphasize Nagin’s message, at 10:11 am, virtually the moment he finished, the NHC issued one of the most extraordinary warnings in its history. It was more than a dry, meteorological analysis; it was an apocalyptic cry from the heart.

 

URGENT — WEATHER MESSAGE

NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA

1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28, 2005

 

…DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED…

 

.HURRICANE KATRINA…A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH…RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.

 

MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL…LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.

 

THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL.

 

PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE…INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.

 

HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY…A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT.

 

AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD…AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILLBE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS…PETS…AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.

 

POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.

 

THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING…BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE KILLED.

 

AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEAR HURRICANE FORCE…OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE…ARE CERTAIN WITHIN THE NEXT 12 TO 24 HOURS.

 

ONCE TROPICAL STORM AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS ONSET…DO NOT VENTURE OUTSIDE!

 

By waiting until 9:30 Sunday morning, Aug. 28, to issue his mandatory evacuation order, Nagin gave his city’s population only 20 hours notice that they absolutely had to leave town. For the very poorest citizens, those who had no private transportation or those who were elderly or disabled, it was—if not a death sentence—then a condemnation to the terrible suffering and privation that followed.

Of all the criticisms leveled at Nagin, the most persistent and objective one was that he failed to issue the evacuation order early enough for it to be effective. It was his call and he failed to make it despite urgent, repeated warnings.

As the US Senate investigation put it plainly: “Mayor Nagin wasted time in waiting to order a mandatory evacuation until Sunday morning, while his staff worked out details of the order that should have been settled long before the crisis.”[25]

Nagin, unsurprisingly, did not see it that way. According to him, it was Katrina’s changing and uncertain track that prevented him from issuing an earlier mandatory evacuation order. “Katrina was an extremely deceptive storm,” he later recalled. Once he received the call from Max Mayfield he ordered the city attorney to draw up a mandatory evacuation order. However, he pointed out, “It was only 24 hours [before landfall] that it was clear it would hit New Orleans.”[26]

 

Federalization

 

A second key decision that needed to be made was whether federal troops would be used to respond to the disaster. This decision involved both Bush and Blanco and was intimately entangled in the politics of the moment and the relationships of the key players.

An unprepossessing, grandmotherly woman born in 1942, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was the daughter of a farmer and small shopkeeper. She developed a taste for grassroots politics after working as a canvasser in a 1983 political campaign. Advised by her husband Raymond, a football coach who would ever-after be known as “Coach” in Louisiana politics, she ran for representative in the state legislature for the district around Lafayette, La., in the 1984 election and won.

      With that Blanco was on her way to a political career that followed a relatively conventional upward trajectory: four years as a state representative, then election to a six-year term as the state’s public service commissioner, afterwards two four-year terms as lieutenant governor where she became best known for promoting tourism to Louisiana.

      Blanco was personable, matronly and warm but could show a steely core. “People underestimate her as this nice grandmother figure but she can be very tough,” said one state assemblyman.[27]

When Nagin endorsed her opponent, Bobby Jindal, in the 2003 governor’s race, it opened a deep rift between them. Nonetheless, each had been duly elected and while they could cooperate at times, it didn’t take much for the strains to become apparent—and there was no strain like Katrina.

When Hurricane Katrina came ashore on Aug. 29, Blanco was in Baton Rouge getting fragmentary reports on the state of New Orleans and was trying to absorb what had happened to her entire state. Michael Brown assured her that FEMA would send 500 buses the next day to the city to evacuate storm victims.

At 8 pm, Blanco called the White House and requested all the assistance it could provide. However, in Crawford, Texas, Bush and his staff believed the media reports that New Orleans had dodged the bullet. “My staff and I went to bed that night thinking the levees had held,” Bush later wrote.[28] No action was taken on Blanco’s request.

On Tuesday, Aug. 30, Blanco, accompanied by the state’s two senators, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, along with Michael Brown, flew by state helicopter from Baton Rouge. During the flight Blanco sighed and wept at the sight of all the destruction. Landrieu called it “the helicopter ride from hell.” [29]

Before proceeding to New Orleans, Blanco asked that the helicopter stop in Jefferson Parish for a meeting with Aaron Broussard, the parish president. However, their signals had gotten crossed and Broussard wasn’t there. Nonetheless, Brown was alarmed by the behavior of Philip Capitano, the mayor of the town of Kenner, who angrily demanded National Guardsmen, water and debris-removal equipment, denounced his sheriff as useless and complained about Armstrong Airport, which he said had been poorly sited and sent water downhill into residential neighborhoods.

“Do you think everything is going to be like this?” Brown whispered privately to Landrieu. “Because if it’s like this everywhere, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.” Landrieu reassured him that Capitano was an exception. “I hope so,” Brown replied. “I hope so.”

From there, the party flew to the Superdome to meet Nagin in an administrative building at the heliport.

At a building at the Superdome complex, the group met with Nagin, Marty Bahamonde, the only FEMA official who had been present in New Orleans during the storm, and New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass. Topics discussed included the state of the city and the state of search and rescue operations.

For their part, the Baton Rouge contingent was reassured that Nagin seemed calm and in control, in contrast to rumors they had been hearing about him about breaking down. But they were concerned by Compass, whose trembling, incoherent mumbling and glazed look alarmed them. (Compass later attributed this to lack of sleep and the pain of a recent hand operation.)

Nagin also found the conversation stilted and seemingly scripted and thought the governor “had a very nervous look about her. I was not sure what it meant at the time but I later put it together that she was having great difficulties making decisions.”

Nagin became convinced that the meeting was nothing more than a photo opportunity for the governor to show concern for New Orleans, without providing any substantial aid or real assistance.

Photo opportunity or not, both sides left to take separate helicopter tours of the city and assess the damage.

Once back in Baton Rouge, Blanco made getting buses to evacuate people in New Orleans her priority. She had state officials calling school districts all over the state, scrounging buses—however, the officials requested a voluntary donation of buses. They could not demand them because Blanco did not issue an executive order requisitioning them.

      Moreover, it was difficult to find drivers because many refused to drive into the city, given the reports of looting and violence. When a convoy of 100 buses was finally put together, it was stopped by desperate people encamped on an interstate highway at the New Orleans city line. Reasoning that people in the Superdome had a roof and shelter while those on the highway did not, Blanco authorized the drivers to pick up those on the highway and take them to shelter. None of the buses made it into the city or the Superdome.[30]

      According to Brown, after conferring with Blanco, he told the FEMA federal coordinating officer for Louisiana to do whatever he had to do to get buses into the state. However, the DHS bureaucracy impeded the request and the paperwork for the request was lost. “There were too many layers between need and resolution and even if we had discovered where the paperwork went astray, by the time I realized that the process had failed, it was too late,” Brown recalled.

Late on Aug. 30, Chertoff issued a memorandum designating Brown as the Principal Federal Official for Hurricane Katrina. As such, Brown would represent Chertoff and DHS and be in charge of the response. On the federal civilian side, all responsibility now fell on his shoulders.

However, Brown would not entirely be alone. At 4 pm that day Russell Honoré, a lieutenant general in the US Army, was made commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, the Defense Department’s response to the disaster. A self-described African-American Creole and a Louisiana native with a long military career behind him, Honoré was a logical choice for the job. Known as the “ragin’ Cajun” in military circles, Honoré could be gruff, impatient and blunt but also effective.

      Existing rules stated that Honoré could only travel from one military base to another if he was conducting training, so he created “Exercise Katrina,” which allowed him to get to Camp Shelby in southern Mississippi. Once he was given the order, he would create Task Force Katrina, a temporary command that covered all the affected states including Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia and take command of all military forces in its area of responsibility.

There was one problem at that moment, however—Joint Task Force Katrina consisted only of Honoréhimself and a handful of aides.

 

     

*  *  *

 

      The following day, Wednesday, Aug. 31, Blanco tried to reach the president by phone while he was flying over the area in Air Force One but instead reached Frances Townsend, the White House homeland security and counterterrorism advisor. “Send everything you’ve got!” Blanco said. Townsend asked what Blanco needed. “Send everything you’ve got!” Blanco repeated. Townsend asked to speak to the state National Guard commander or the emergency management director to get a detailed list. Much later in the day Blanco formally put in a request for 40,000 federal troops.[31]

      Blanco later admitted that she basically conjured the 40,000 figure from thin air. There was no analysis or detailed breakdown of what kind of troops or their specific missions. What is more, Blanco wanted the troops put under state authority and her command.

On the ground in New Orleans, conditions were deteriorating. Looting was becoming more pervasive and violent. The Superdome was filled with an estimated 26,000 people—virtually its full capacity—and the doors were locked against any more refugees. The previous day the locked Ernest N. Morial Convention Center had been broken into, with Nagin’s approval, and an estimated 20,000 people poured in, all without food, water or any kind of order. Some began forming vigilante self-defense groups for protection from gangs. There were reports of murders and rapes. The anarchy deepened, spread and the media blasted its images across the nation.

 

*  *  * 

 

The third, key elected policymaking figure in the Katrina disaster was President Bush, whose historyand heritage would shape his response.

Bush’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, had followed a course from Yale University into the US Navy where he’d served as a bomber pilot during World War II and survived being shot down. After the war he moved to Texas and went into the oil industry, then, following the example of his own father, Prescott Bush, who had served as senator from Connecticut, moved into public service. He had a distinguished career, serving as a member of the House of Representatives, ambassador to the United Nations and China and then headed the Central Intelligence Agency. Along the way he also chaired the Republican National Committee. After an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1980 he was picked as Ronald Reagan’s vice president before launching a second, successful campaign for president, taking office in 1989 and serving a single term.

      His eldest son’s career, however, was neither as straight, nor as narrow, nor as directly upward as his father. Born in 1946, the younger Bush received a proper upper class education—Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Yale University and a master of business administration degree at Harvard University. He was chiefly distinguished by activities such as playing baseball and rugby and being elected president of his fraternity.

      “My philosophy in college was the old cliché: work hard, play hard. I upheld the former and excelled at the latter.” Bush later recalled.[32]

He joined the Texas Air National Guard, which kept him out of active service in Vietnam but there was later controversy over his attendance, his service record and the degree of his father’s influence on his behalf.

      After completing his education he moved back to Midland, Texas, married and began a career in the oil business. However, politics exerted its pull and in 1978 Bush ran as a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives for the Texas 19th Congressional District. He was up against Kent Hance, a native Texan who easily portrayed Bush as a privileged East-coast aristocrat and not a “real Texan” like himself.

Hance handily swatted down the youngster. It was a lesson Bush never forgot. Ever after, Bush portrayed himself as an unpretentious, likeable, down-home, grassroots neighbor, the kind of guy that average voters would want to share a beer with, as it was put in an oft-quoted phrase.

      Sharing a beer was something Bush was good at and his personal life was marked by alcoholism as he followed a meandering business career, first in the oil industry and then in professional sports.

 Finally his family, and in particular his wife Laura, had enough. In 1986, at the age of 40, following a tremendous birthday bender and his wife’s remonstrances, Bush decided to swear off alcohol.

      Instead, he took refuge in religion, all the while still pursuing his professional sports interests and assisting in his father’s political campaigns.

      In 1993 Bush sensed a political opening for the Texas governorship. Democratic Governor Ann Richards, though very popular, had been handed a defeat in a school funding measure that was submitted to a referendum. It showed her vulnerability. Bush may have thirsted for personal retribution too—Richards had made merciless fun of the elder Bush in a 1988 speech to the Democratic National Convention and now it was payback time. At the same time Bush’s younger brother Jeb was running for governor of Florida, another prod to the older brother to pursue public office.

Bush had hooked up with Karl Rove, Texas political consultant, and Joe Allbaugh, a six-foot, four-inch, chief of staff with the bearing of a drill sergeant, who previously served as chief of staff for the governor of Oklahoma. Together they organized a campaign that even Bush’s mother thought would fail. Conventional wisdom held that Richards was a shoo-in. Ironically, though, her seemingly overwhelming popularity was a boon to Bush since no other Republicans sought the nomination and he was effectively campaigning in the general election from the outset. Bush, Allbaugh, Rove and communications director Karen Hughes ran a campaign that focused on an upbeat, optimistic vision for Texas on the bright side—and spread rumors of lesbianism against Richards on the dark side.

In the end it worked and in a stunning upset, Bush won the governorship—in contrast to his brother Jeb, who lost in Florida.

Bush proved an effective governor, one able to reach across the aisle to get things done. He also had to deal with disaster situations: 1996 fires in Parker County, 1998 flooding in the hill country around Austin and in Houston and a tornado that devastated the city of Jarrell.[33]

Bush handled these disasters competently, according to all accounts. He worked with Texas public safety officials, visited the sites and stayed on top of the situations. “He was very hands-on,” recalled Allbaugh.[34]

Indeed, during his first presidential debate with Vice President Al Gore, even Gore complimented Bush on his response to the Parker County fires—before noting that FEMA’s effective response in that disaster was the result of the Democratic administration’s “reinventing government” initiative.

Bush in turn complimented FEMA and the job done by its director, James Lee Witt. Then he went on to discuss the role of governors during disasters. “You know, as governor, one of the things you have to deal with is catastrophe,” he said, recollecting his response to the Texas floods. During a disaster, “that’s the time when you’re tested…it’s the time to test your metal, a time to test your heart when you see people whose lives have been turned upside down. It broke my heart to go to the flood scene in Del Rio where a fellow and his family got completely uprooted. The only thing I knew was to get aid as quickly as possible with state and federal help and to put my arms around the man and his family and cry with them. That’s what governors do. They are often on the front line of catastrophic situations.”[35]

Bush had more than just his experience of the Texas disasters to draw on when he discussed the response. In 1992 an enormous and powerful hurricane had seriously crippled his father’s presidential reelection campaign.

Hurricane Andrew was a Category 5 storm that hit southern Florida hard around the town and military base of Homestead, which was almost entirely leveled.

The federal response to the storm was widely perceived as slow, inadequate and disorganized and was best summed up by Kate Hale, Dade County’s emergency management director, who exclaimed at a televised news conference, “Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one? They keep saying we’re going to get supplies. For God’s sake, where are they?”[36]

“After flattening parts of Florida, Hurricane Andrew has crashed into Washington, taking dead aim at George Bush’s effort to portray himself as a decisive, domestic-policy President at the very cusp of his fall campaign,” wrote Michael Wines in The New York Times. Floridians contrasted the 41st president’s decisive and effective response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait with what they perceived as the lead-footed response to Hurricane Andrew. “The President’s woes are all the more painful to his supporters because the hurricane’s march through the Southeast, however much a tragedy, was an opportunity for Mr. Bush to demonstrate compassion and leadership during a domestic crisis in a way his challenger, Gov. Bill Clinton, could not have hoped to match,” noted Wines.[37]

The elder Bush changed his campaign plans and ordered federal assets into Florida but the damage was done and the taint of failure plagued him in the politically important state. It stretched on into the general election, which he lost.

Of course, George the younger and Republican partisans had a different view of the handling of Hurricane Andrew.

“Governer Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and Bill Clinton’s campaign exploited the devastation to claim the federal government had not performed,” the younger Bush wrote in his memoir, Decision Points. “Their criticism was unfair. Dad had ordered a swift response to the storm. He sent Andy Card, then transportation secretary, to live in Florida to oversee the recovery. But once the public had formed a perception that Dad was disengaged, it was hard to reverse it.”[38]

Given these events, George W. Bush had plenty of disaster response experience when he became the 43rd president of the United States in 2001.

 

*  *  *

 

One aspect of Bush’s personality that was much remarked upon was his seeming lack of engagement in the affairs around him. It was something that was particularly noted by those who worked with him and especially by the media covering him once he became president.

Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, famously characterized Bush’s approach to an important Cabinet meeting saying, “The only way I can describe it is that, well, the president is like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people. There is no discernible connection.” Bush did not read the memos the other cabinet secretaries had drafted and asked no questions, according to O’Neill.[39]

      According to writer Ron Suskind, in August 2001, when a nervous briefer from the Central Intelligence Agency urgently warned Bush during a visit to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, that Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike targets in the United States, Bush replied only, “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.”[40]

      Judging by these descriptions, Bush was remarkably incurious about the world around him and it showed at the most critical moments. On Sept. 11, 2001, Bush was sitting in a Sarasota, Fla., second grade classroom listening while children read the book My Pet Goat, when his chief of staff, Andrew Card, bent down and whispered in his ear, “A second plane hit the other tower, and America’s under attack.”

      “My first reaction was outrage,” Bush recalled. “Someone had dared attack America. Then I looked at the faces of the children in front of me. …I saw the reporters at the back of the room, learning the news on their cell phones and pagers. Instinct kicked in. I knew my reaction would be recorded and beamed throughout the world. The nation would be in shock; the president could not be. If I stormed out hastily, it would scare the children and send ripples of panic throughout the country.” Bush said his mind raced ahead, wondering who had mounted the attack, the extent of the damage and what the government needed to do. He decided that “when the lesson ended, I would leave the classroom calmly, gather the facts, and speak to the nation.”

      But that was not how most of the world interpreted Bush’s reaction. Typical was author James Bamford, who recorded his own reaction in his bookBody of Secrets: “Almost immediately an expression of befuddlement passed across the president’s face,” Bamford noted. “Then, having just been told that the country was under attack, the commander in chief appeared uninterested in further details. He never asked if there had been any additional threats, where the attacks were coming from, how to best protect the country from further attacks, or what was the current status of NORAD or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Nor did he call for an immediate return to Washington. Instead, in the middle of a modern-day Pearl Harbor, he simply turned back to the matter at hand: the day’s photo-op. Precious minutes were ticking by, and many more lives were still at risk. ‘Really good readers, whew!’ he told the class as the electronic flashes once again began to blink and the video cameras rolled. ‘These must be sixth graders!’”[41]

      Whether it was Bush in deep thought or Bush in befuddlement, it was a behavior pattern and interpretation that repeated itself numerous times. Bush’s seemingly peculiar unengagement showed itself again and again.[1]*

 

*  *  *

 

August is a dangerous month on many levels. It is the heart of the hurricane season. It is also the time when most business slows down, when the days grow hot and languid and there’s little energy or inclination to get things done. People in positions of responsibility all go on vacation and decisions don’t get made. In Washington, the Washington Post has written humorous articles trying to find the person in charge of the nation during the last week of the month.

      So it was in August 2005. President Bush was on a month-long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas,which was where he was based as Katrina approached.

On the day that Katrina made landfall, President Bush traveled to Arizona from his ranch.

      He had two items on his agenda. As he stepped from Air Force One at Luke Air Force Base he greeted Sen. John McCain. The two men had been bitter rivals for the 2000 Republican nomination and McCain’s disdain for Bush was well known. But this was an opportunity to mend fences.

      McCain was waiting for Bush on the tarmac and beside him, on a table, was a large, square birthday cake: It was McCain’s 69th birthday.

      Bush came down the plane’s ramp and the two men posed with the cake for photographs as it slowly melted in the hot desert sun. Bush licked some cake off his fingers, hugged McCain, the two joked and laughed for a moment or two and then Bush departed.

      The cake was never eaten.

      From the Air Force base Bush went to the Pueblo El Mirage RV Resort and Country Club in El Mirage, for a town hall meeting—billed as a “conversation”—on Medicare.

      He was there, he said, to explain the “fantastic opportunity” that his latest legislation was providing by improving the program. Then he thanked everyone who was hosting him. During the course of his talk, he did mention that “I know my fellow citizens herein Arizona and across the country are saying our prayers for those affected by the—Hurricane Katrina. Our Gulf Coast is getting hit and hit hard.”

      Then, for a moment, he mentioned that the federal government was ready to help those affected by the storm. “I want the folks there on the Gulf Coast to know that the federal government is prepared to help you when the storm passes. I want to thank the governors of the affected regions for mobilizing assets prior to the arrival of the storm to help citizens avoid this devastating storm.” He told New Orleanians to listen to the local authorities, not leave their shelters until told to do so by authorities and assured them that when the storm passed, “the federal government has got assets and resources that we’ll be deploying to help you. In the meantime, America will pray—pray for the health and safety of all our citizens.”[42] Then he went on to discuss Medicare.

      That day Bush also declared emergencies in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to provide them with aid.

       In Baton Rouge the word coming into the state EOC was that the levees and floodwalls had held and this was passed on by Brown to Chertoff and the rest of FEMA and by Blanco to Bush.

The following day, while Blanco and Nagin had their meeting at the Superdome, President Bush was in San Diego, California, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. With him was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who the day before attended a San Diego Padres baseball game.

Speaking before an enthusiastic crowd of military personnel at the Coronado naval base, Bush likened the war in Iraq to America’s fight during that long-ago conflict, asserting that terrorists would fail to break America’s will. “America will not run in defeat and we will not forget our responsibilities,” he vowed.

      After the speech, Bush went backstage and met with country music singer Mark Wills, who had entertained at the event. Wills presented Bush with a custom-built Cobalt C980 guitar graced with the presidential seal. Bush strummed the strings a bit and smiled. It was supposed to be a private occasion, but ABC Pentagon reporter Martha Raddatz was present and snapped pictures of the president with the guitar.

      The following year, when the House of Representatives investigated the Katrina response, Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, made an acid observation about this moment: “The president is still at his ranch, the vice president is still fly-fishing in Wyoming, the president’s chief of staff is in Maine. In retrospect, don’t you think it would have been better to pull together? They should have had better leadership. It is disengagement.”[43]

      That night, Bush returned to Crawford to conclude his vacation.

 

*  *  * 

 

      The following morning, Wednesday, Aug. 31, Air Force One was flying from Crawford to Washington, DC when Bush was told that the flight path would take him over the areas affected by Katrina.

      According to Bush, Joe Hagin, White House deputy chief of staff, had contacted both Blanco and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to discuss a presidential visit but both had turned it down as too demanding in terms of personnel, time and effort, all of which had to be directed to search and rescue. Bush agreed.[44]

      Before Bush left Crawford, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, discussed the possibility of a flyover with Rove and other members of the White House team in a conference call and argued against it. “He’ll be 10,000 feet up in the air, looking down at people being rescued off rooftops. He’ll look out of touch and detached. If he goes, he needs to be on the ground visiting with those affected and seeing the damage up close,” McClellan argued. An alternative, he suggested, was to have Bush do a helicopter flyover, or if not that, simply go back to Washington. Another member of the team agreed and when no one else objected, McClellan simply assumed the matter was at an end.

      Standard operating procedure at the White House was not to have the president immediately visit disaster sites. For one thing, a presidential visit disrupted response operations because of the level of preparation and security that had to be imposed. Another factor was that Bush never wanted to seem to be exploiting the disaster for political reasons. It was usually Bush’s practice to visit a disaster site a few days after the event.

      Prior to Bush’s departure for Washington, McClellan briefed reporters to emphasize the president’s focus on rescue operations in New Orleans and development of a long-term strategy for the city’s recovery.

      There was, however, a change of plans. “Sometime Wednesday morning, I learned that Karl Rove, still pushing his ill-conceived suggestion from Tuesday’s conference call, had actually persuaded the president to do a flyover of the Katrina disaster area,” McClellan recalled.Though he continued to object, McClellan had little fight left in him, having lost earlier battles. “I shrugged it all off and went along. I did not bring it up with the president. I knew it was a mistake, but I had no idea how devastating the image would turn out to be.”[45]

      Rove, for his part, in his memoirs states that Air Force One “was diverted” to fly low over the affected areas.

      When Air Force One arrived at New Orleans it descended to about 2,500 feet. Bush left his private cabin and went to the area normally occupied by the head of the Secret Service detail. He was joined there by Rove and J.D. Crouch, the deputy national security advisor, one of the pilots and McClellan. Photographers came forward to photograph Bush looking out over the devastation. The overflight lasted about 35 minutes.

      “The mood in the cabin was somber,” McClellan recalled. “All of us, including the president, were struck by just how devastating the storm had been.”

      “What I saw took my breath away,” recalled Bush. “New Orleans was almost totally submerged.” Only rooftops could be seen above the water, the Superdome roof was nearly peeled off, sections of the I-10 bridge had collapsed, cars floated in the streets. “The landscape looked like something out of a horror movie.”

      The flight continued over the coast of the Gulf in Mississippi and Alabama and Bush found the destruction in Mississippi “even more brutal,” with every standing structure smashed to pieces, trees strewn like matchsticks and a major bridge simply gone. “This must be what it looks like when a nuclear bomb explodes,” he thought.

      Bush said he barely noticed the photographers in the cabin, his thoughts preoccupied with the conditions below him.

      “It’s devastating,” he observed out loud. “It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”

 

*  *  * 

 

After Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base following the Gulf coast flyover, Bush called a meeting in the White House. As he described it in his book, Decision Points:

      “When I landed at the White House Wednesday afternoon, I convened an emergency meeting in the Cabinet Room to discuss the response. ‘Every agency needs to step forward,’ I told the team. ‘Look at your resources and find a way to do more.’”[46]

      However, before the full-fledged Cabinet meeting another meeting took place, one that was much smaller.

      It occurred in the White House Situation Room. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were both told to meet the president and each was allowed to bring only a single aide—the sure sign of a serious discussion. They each entered the room and sat silently waiting for the president, each with folders full of papers, exchanging no greetings or small talk.

      Bush came to the meeting directly from Air Force One dressed casually in his Air Force One jacket. He sat down in his usual spot. Then he swiveled toward Chertoff.

      “What the fuck is going on down in New Orleans?” he snarled.

      Nonplussed, Chertoff replied that FEMA had New Orleans covered.

      What about military assets? Bush demanded. Why weren’t they being used?

      “I have no DoD assets,” Chertoff responded.

      Bush turned on Rumsfeld. “Get your fucking thumb out of your ass and get him military assets!” he snapped.

      Rumsfeld remained cool and unruffled. He had anticipated the question. He explained that military assets could not be sent into the city because of the Posse Comitatus Act and under Title 10 of the US Code he was only allowed to move forces from one military installation to another. However, if Bush would sign the order, the Defense Department would immediately begin moving whatever assets it could into the area.

      Bush apologized to Rumsfeld for the earlier tongue lashing. He asked if there was an order he could sign. Rumsfeld immediately produced a paper. Bush signed it and slid it across the table to Chertoff.

      He asked Chertoff what else was available togo to New Orleans. At least on this, Chertoff was prepared and listed all the FEMA and DHS assets available and what FEMA was already doing.

      It mollified Bush, but not by much. “You had better fucking relieve New Orleans,” he charged and then he looked directly into Chertoff’s eyes and yelled, “Now do your job or YOU WILL BE FIRED!”

      Then he stormed out of the room.[47]

     

*  *  * 

 

      Following Bush’s meeting with Rumsfeld and Chertoff, the president changed into a business suit and convened a full Cabinet meeting at which he created a Katrina Task Force. Afterward, at 5:11 pm, he went out into the Rose Garden to address the media, making his first statement exclusively devoted to Hurricane Katrina.

      It wasn’t so much a speech as a briefing for the public on the Cabinet meeting and the response to Katrina to date.

“We’re dealing with one of the worst national disasters in our nation’s history,” Bush said. Chertoff would be heading the Cabinet task force, Bush announced, and Brown was in charge of all federal response and recovery efforts. The first priority was to save lives, then sustain people with food, water, shelter and medical supplies, all of which were being moved into the area, and the third was to execute a comprehensive recovery effort.

Bush grimly and emphatically read off the statistics of the relief effort being made to the city: 400 trucks were moving 5.4 million MREs into the area, 10,400 tarpaulins were being provided to cover damaged roofs, the federal government was rushing 3.4 million pounds of ice, 144 generators, 20 containers of prepositioned disaster supplies, 135,000 blankets and 11,000 cots to the area.

Among the actions his administration was taking was sending buses to help evacuate people from the Superdome to the Astrodome in Houston, which authorities in that city had opened to take evacuees. He also said the Defense Department was pitching in by sending the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, and the hospital ship, USNS Comfort, to assist, along with a Marine Corps readiness group and swift water rescue teams.

The Energy Department would be working to alleviate any gas shortages and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would be tapped in order to prevent disruptions in the nation’s supply of gasoline. Fuel blends would be allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency to increase the national fuel supply.

      A comprehensive plan was being developed to deal with displaced people and find them shelter, housing, education and healthcare.

      He also encouraged people to contribute cash to charities like the Red Cross.         

“The folks on the Gulf Coast are going to need the help of this country for a long time,” he said. “This is going to be a difficult road. The challenges that we face on the ground are unprecedented. But there’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to succeed. Right now the days seem awfully dark for those affected—I understand that. But I’m confident that, with time, you can get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet,and America will be a stronger place for it.”

 

*  *  * 

 

Following his flyover, Bush considered deploying troops to the city. The 82nd Airborne Division was available at Fort Bragg, NC, although Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opposed their use, according to Bush.

As Rumsfeld told him, Bush was prohibited from using troops by the Posse Comitatus Act.

There was, however, an exception that would allow the deployment: The Insurrection Act, which empowered the president to send troops into an area in a state of insurrection. However, unless Blanco requested it, Bush would have to make a formal, unilateral declaration that New Orleans was in a state of insurrection.

First passed in 1807, the Insurrection Act had most recently been used in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots, at the request of California Governor Pete Wilson. In 1957 it had been used unilaterally by President Dwight Eisenhower over the objections of Governor Orval Faubus to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. In that instance, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard, which took them from the governor’s control, and sent in the 101st Airborne Division, which enforced the Supreme Court’s integration order.

According to Bush, on Thursday morning, Sept. 1, Andrew Card, his chief of staff, formally raised the possibility of invoking the Insurrection Act and federalizing the response with Blanco and her team. But Blanco did not want to surrender authority to the federal government.

“That left me in a tough position,” recalled Bush. “If I invoked the Insurrection Act against her wishes, the world would see a male Republican president usurping the authority of a female Democratic governor by declaring an insurrection in a largely African American city. That would arouse controversy anywhere. To do so in the Deep South, in where there had been centuries of states’ rights tensions, could unleash holy hell. I had to persuade the governor to change her mind. I decided to make my case in person the next day.”

Bush wrote that he was frustrated by the roadblocks on the way to a full federal response and recovery. “But I was stuck with a resistant governor, a reluctant Pentagon, and an antiquated law. I wanted to overrule them all. But at the time, I worried that the consequence could be a constitutional crisis and possibly a political insurrection as well.”[48]

The president considered his hands tied.

 

*  *  *

     

Throughout all the events of Katrina’s approach and landing, the international media had focused on New Orleans. Coverage was non-stop and as soon as any roads were passable, reporters found their way into the city.

The reporting was passionate, desperate and urgent. This was no routine story, no time-filling B-roll. These reporters were trying to save lives with their journalism and struggling to get word of the city’s agony to the outside world.

Brian Williams went into New Orleans early and reported constantly for the full round of MSNBC’s different programs. He entered the Superdome and stayed there through the storm, suffering with all the other people in the darkness, the stench and the danger but still managing to get his reports to the network.

“People say that in this crisis, the media found their voice,” he recalled for a program on Katrina coverage.  “People start seeing these television reporters that we’ve come to know, these docile creatures, turned into monsters.”

They were not just observers, according to Williams, their role went beyond that.

“We beat the first responders to Hurricane Katrina.  That made us witnesses.  And that gave us license to come at these government officials who were in the other side of that screen, the split-screen America we lived through for a week there, who were saying, ‘You know what?  Everything’s fine.’”[49]

For all their frantic decisionmaking, the principle officials found ways to do media interviews, seeking to calm panic, report on the current status or spin the situation for political gain.

Bush came in for enormous criticism. His every public action seemed to bespeak indifference, aloofness and unengagement. While all of America watched in horror as the city flooded, as desperate people sought refuge, as they died in the streets, in wheelchairs, in attics, he continued with his vacation—and even though aides were insistent then and later that a presidential vacation is not a complete get-away, that the president is always working and always in full touch with the outside world and has all the resources and capabilities of the Oval Office, Bush’s lack of urgency and the triviality of his other engagements seemed to indicate a complete lack of caring—or even interest. He didn’t seem to have the interest to even be watching the same television or listening or reading the same news as the rest of the country.

The photos of Bush peering out the window of Air Force One as he flew over gave new meaning to the words “aloof” and “distant” and aroused a storm of outrage across the country.

Even when he did speak out on the crisis, his wordsrang hollow. On Sept. 1, on the program “Good Morning, America,” he told the host, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”

 “Bush needed to show that he was in control. But he also needed to show that he cared—that he understood the situation and shared Americans’ sense of horror and anger, that he was determined to do whatever it took to make the bureaucracy respond,” thought McClellan. “The flyover images showed none of this. And while privately Bush was quickly becoming more engaged, it was too little, too late.”[50]

Bush’s Rose Garden statement came in for blistering criticism from the New York Times.

“George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday, especially given the level of national distress and the need for words of consolation and wisdom,” the Times editorialized. “In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end.”[51]

 

*  *  *

 

That evening Sally Forman, Nagin’s communication director, received a note that Bush had been trying to reach Nagin for hours and she learned that he had flown over the city.

      When she told the mayor, he commented that “it must have been one serious telescope to observe the city from a 747.”

      Forman struggled to find a working telephone, trying to get a connection on National Guard satellite phones and then phones being used by Entergy, the New Orleans electric company, which had established a headquarters in the Hyatt. After hours of searching, Greg Meffert, the city’s chief technology officer who had been functioning as an all-around techie, found a working telephone and Nagin was able to speak to Card at the White House.

      Card informed Nagin of the steps that were being taken on behalf of the city. Then Nagin spoke to Bush.

      “Mr. Mayor, how’s it going? What do you need? I’m working with the governor to get you more resources. Everything is going to be alright. Here are my numbers—keep in touch.  We’re trying to come and see you real soon.”[52]

      “Mr. President,” said Nagin, “I need the levies at the 17th Street Canal patched. Our pumping stations are destroyed and we need attention brought there immediately.”

      “We’ll take care of that,” answered Bush.

      They hung up after a few more moments of conversation about search and rescue and other matters.

      Given the massive needs of the city, Forman asked Nagin why he didn’t request more assistance.

“Let’s get him to do one job and do it right and then we’ll ask for the next thing,” she recalled him responding.[53]

      “For some reason Sally was not happy with my single, focused request of the president,” Nagin recalled. He wrote that he snapped at her: “Let him do this one damn thing, Sally, and then we’ll move on to the next set of needs.” Then he added, “Look, I’ve got FEMA blowing smoke up my butt every day, so I just want him to deliver on this one thing for now.”

To Nagin, plugging that breach was the highest priority, in order to stop the spillage from Lake Pontchartrain into the city. It was a matter of saving lives.

The night—really the early morning hours—ended with one last bit of excitement for the beleaguered municipal team. At 1:40 am a truck full of provisions headed to the Hyatt was surrounded by would-be looters who attacked it. The truck’s private security guards fled. A hotel security guard informed Forman of the incident and she awakened Compass. The police chief organized a patrol, got on the hotel’s public address system and ordered every able-bodied person down to the first floor. The patrol reached the truck, escorted it to the hotel and then the guests formed a human chain that handed boxes of provisions from one person to the other.

At least in the Hyatt they would have a meal the next day.

 

*  *  *

 

For Michael Brown, New Orleans was just one part of a much larger disaster that included horrendous destruction in Mississippi and Alabama as well as damage to Florida and Georgia and Mississippi River flooding that threatened Kentucky and Ohio. He was coping with the loss of 300,000 homes, a total loss of about $96 billion and business losses of about $20 billion. He was still in the search-and-rescue phase of plucking people from the debris and the flooded homes across a vast area.

To Brown, the Superdome, where the media concentrated their coverage, was just one small point in the overall disaster and what was more, people there had shelter, some food and water—and here his past experience of disasters had inured him to suffering in the American context. Compared to what he had seen in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, he didn’t think they had it so bad.

“The problem was that the media were mostly telling the truth but it was an incomplete truth,” in his view. “They were confronting people who were sweltering in the Superdome, many of whom just wanted someone to listen to them complain.”[54]

To Brown, “The people in the Superdome often sounded like teenagers sitting around a campfire during an overnight camping trip, scaring themselves with ghost stories,” he recalled. The media, in his view, should have investigated the allegations of rapes, thefts and the myriad other rumors swirling through the building and the streets, many of which he discounted.

And so, on Sept. 1, four days after Katrina made landfall and after millions of people had spent days watching the drama around the Superdome, when Brian Williams asked Brown on camera: “Why can’t some of the Chinook helicopters and Blackhawks that we have heard flying over for days and days and days, simply lower palettes of water, meals-ready-to-eat, medical supplies, right into downtown New Orleans? Where is the aid? It’s the question people keep asking us on camera.”

Brown replied: “Brian, it’s an absolutely fair question, and I got to tell you from the bottom of my heart how sad I feel for those people. The federal government just learned about those people today.”[55]

*  *  * 

On Sept. 1 Nagin and his staff came up with a new means of getting word to the world about the city’s plight. Sally Forman had been texting messages via Blackberry and they seemed to go out but she never received any responses. Nagin and the others concluded it was because her name was not widely recognized. So the next message to go out was under Nagin’s name.

“This is a desperate SOS,” stated the message, which was sent to the media. “Right now we are out of resources at the Convention Center and don’t anticipate enough buses. We need buses. Currently the Convention Center is unsanitary and unsafe and we’re running out of supplies.”

This message got out and spread throughout the country.

At the Superdome, Nagin and his staff was hearing that the nearly 30,000 people inside were so desperate, hungry and frustrated that they were approaching riot conditions. ChiefCompass told Nagin that he had nearly been kidnapped by a mob but had managed to break free. Rumors that buses would come gave people hope—which would then be dashed when the buses didn’t appear, stoking anger.

When Nagin cranked a windup radio to try to get some news, he caught a Baton Rouge press conference with the governor who was saying that the situation was under control and that there were no serious problems in New Orleans. The state’s two senators said the same and someone said that the people at the Superdome and the Convention Center were being treated well.

“At that point my face turned red and I fumed,” Nagin recalled. “I jumped out of my seat and said, ‘I’ve had it with this bullshit. I’m calling in to set the record straight once and for all.’”

Nagin and the city’s emergency manager, Terry Ebbert, struggled to find a working telephone line. Wireless phones dropped their calls. A landline produced a dial tone that dropped as they were dialing the number. Finally, they found a working landline in a nearby room and connected to WWL radio and Garland Robinette, an announcer who had remained on air throughout the hurricane and the aftermath and was still broadcasting.

What followed was a desperate cry from the heart that dropped all pretenses and was a major turning point in the response.

Nagin began by complaining that nothing pledged to the city had arrived, despite repeated promises.

“What did you say to the president of the United States and what did he say to you?” asked Robinette.

“I told him that we had an incredible crisis here and that his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice,” replied Nagin. Sally Forman, who was in the room listening to the conversation, gave him a reproachful look—it was not what he had said to the president.

Nagin turned his back on her and continued talking, saying that city government was overwhelmed and looters were rampant because city resources had been used to rescue thousands of people.

“They don’t have a clue what’s going on down here,” Nagin continued. “They”—he didn’t say precisely who—“flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn…” he didn’t complete the thought “…excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed.”

“Did you say to the president of the United States, ‘I need the military in here?’” asked Robinette.

“I said, ‘I need everything’”—which absolutely wasn’t true. The only thing he had requested of Bush was repairing the breach in the 17th Street Canal.

“Now, I will tell you this—and I give the president some credit on this—he sent one John Wayne dude down here and he can get some stuff done and his name is Gen. Honoré. And he came off the doggone chopper and he started cussing and people started moving and he’s getting some stuff done.

“They ought to give that guy—if they don’t want to give it to me, give him full authority to get the job done, and we can save some people.”

Asked what he needed, Nagin said he needed reinforcements, troops, 500 buses. In one briefing he had been told that there was an effort to get public school bus drivers to come to the city.

“I’m like, ‘You got to be kidding me. This is a national disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans.’

“That’s — they’re thinking small,man. And this is a major, major, major deal. And I can’t emphasize it enough, man. This is crazy.”

Nagin said there were 15,000 to 20,000 people at the Convention Center who needed to be rescued and as needy as the city was, it was nonetheless sharing its resources with people in Plaquemines Parish who were in even greater need.

      Garland asked Nagin if the president was aware of the situation but couldn’t do anything until Blanco requested aid—“And do you know whether or not she has made that request?”

      Nagin didn’t know but he said God was looking down on the situation and if they weren’t doing everything in their power, they would pay a price because every day of delay meant people were dying. “We’re getting reports and calls that are breaking my heart, from people saying, ‘I’ve been in my attic. I can’t take it anymore. The water is up to my neck. I don’t think I can hold out.’ And that’s happening as we speak.”

      Nagin said he was particularly upset that the 17th Street Canal hadn’t been repaired despite repeated requests.

“Who’d you say that to?” asked Robinette.

“Everybody: the governor, Homeland Security, FEMA. You name it, we said it,” replied Nagin, who continued, “And they allowed that pumping station next to Pumping Station 6 to go under water. Our sewage and water board people … stayed there and endangered their lives. And what happened when that pumping station went down, the water started flowing again in the city, and it starting getting to levels that probably killed more people.

“In addition to that, we had water flowing through the pipes in the city. That’s a power station over there.

“So there’s no water flowing anywhere on the east bank of Orleans Parish. So our critical water supply was destroyed because of lack of action.”

Forman was horrified by the accusations. “Oh my goodness,” she thought. “This is going to cause a war.”

But Nagin wasn’t finished. Robinette asked why the sandbags hadn’t been dropped at the 17th Street Canal. Nagin responded that the pulleys (actually latches) had to be manufactured. However, he said, in a state of emergency “you are creative, you figure out ways to get stuff done.” Despite that and construction of concrete structures, the breach still wasn’t closed. “I flew over that thing yesterday, and it’s in the same shape that it was after the storm hit. There is nothing happening. And they’re feeding the public a line of bull and they’re spinning, and people are dying down here.”

      Robinette asked whether, if the president and the federal government couldn’t act without a state or local request, would Nagin declare martial law?

      Nagin said he had already declared martial law but he didn’t think the governor had. Although he had directed the police to control the looting and they had managed to hold it in check he wasn’t sure how much longer that would last. Still, he said, the majority of the looters were just trying to survive.

      He also spent considerable time complained that drug addicts were seeking narcotics to feed their addictions, “So what you’re seeing is drug-starving crazy addicts, drug addicts, that are wrecking havoc” and he wasn’t sure they could be held back.

      Robinette responded that because of the law prohibiting federal intervention withouta formal request, some people thought the response was as good as possible.

      Nagin was incredulous. Had the Indonesian tsunami victims formally requested aid? he asked. Did the Iraqis request American intervention? The United States had authorized $8 billion to swiftly—“lickety-quick”—go into Iraq and after 9/11 the president was given unprecedented powers to take care of New York.

“Now, you mean to tell me that a place where most of your oil is coming through, a place that is so unique when you mention New Orleans anywhere around the world, everybody’s eyes light up — you mean to tell me that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying every day, that we can’t figure out a way to authorize the resources that we need? Come on, man.”

At this, Nagin’s voice began to rise to an emotional crescendo and he began shouting. “And I don’t know whose problem it is. I don’t know whether it’s the governor’s problem. I don’t know whether it’s the president’s problem, but somebody needs to get their ass on a plane and sit down, the two of them, and figure this out right now.”

Robinette asked what New Orleanians could do about it. Nagin responded that they should keep talking about it, write letters and call their members of Congress, the president and the governor and “flood their doggone offices with requests to do something. This is ridiculous.”

      Nagin had also had it with press conferences. “I don’t want to see anybody do anymore goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don’t do another press conference until the resources are in this city.” He didn’t want any more promises that people were coming to help and he grew very emotional. “They’re not here. It’s too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.”

“I’ll say it right now, you’re the only politician that’s called and called for arms like this,” observed Robinette. “And if — whatever it takes, the governor, president — whatever law precedent it takes, whatever it takes, I bet that the people listening to you are on your side.”

Robinette’s encouragement did little to console the mayor, who now deflated from his previous outburst. “Well, I hope so, Garland,” he said morosely. “I am just — I’m at the point now where it don’t matter. People are dying. They don’t have homes. They don’t have jobs. The city of New Orleans will never be the same, in this time.”

      There was a long silence as both men were overwhelmed.

      At length Robinette spoke, his voice husky with emotion. “We’re both pretty speechless here.”

“Yeah,” agreed Nagin. “I don’t know what to say. I got to go.”

“OK. Keep in touch. Keep in touch,” Robinette urged him.

In the room, Sally Forman thought Nagin had burned every bridge and virtually declared war on every government authority on whom he and the city were dependant. She sat down on the bed and covered her face with her hands, while Nagin left the room. Later that night, when he reflected on his words about the governor and the president, Nagin started to seriously worry that a Central Intelligence Agency hit team would be ordered to assassinate him.

In Baton Rouge, shortly after the interview was broadcast, a CNN van pulled up to the temporary WWL broadcasting booth. The CNN team requested a copy of the interview. They got it.

Then CNN broadcast it around the world.[56]

 

*  *  *

At 7 am Eastern time on Friday morning, Sept. 2, Bush convened a meeting in the White House Situation Room. The night before, according to Brown, the White House staff, who routinely watched the broadcast news, had become “fed up with his naivete the day before” and burned a DVD of the evening’s news reports on New Orleans. They did this because Bush equally routinely ignored the regular newscasts and throughout the crisis had not seen any of the media reports on the hurricane or its aftermath.

Bush was not happy. He was genuinely upset by the slow response and the extent of the destruction and he was taking a hammering in the media and among the public for being unengaged and out of touch.

“We are not winning,” he told his advisors and those present. “On the ground it is chaotic. We’ve got to get New Orleans under control. We’ve got to establish order as soon as possible.”

Nothing was going right. There were command and control issues that made getting a full picture of the situation impossible to get; there were big issues in cooperating with state and local authorities; and despite all the effort and work that had been expended to date “I am not pleased with the results,” he said. Further failures would not be acceptable, he announced. He asked General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to bring back to the United States any National Guardsmen deployed overseas whose families had been affected by Katrina.

The meeting shifted to videoconference mode. Admiral Tim Keating, head of the Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., the military command in charge of homeland activities like disaster response and counterterrorism, and Honoré, in Camp Shelby, Miss., appeared on television screens.

Rumsfeld called on Keating, who gave a briefing on his priorities—saving lives and supporting state and local authorities—and enumerated the assets being deploying to the Gulf including command and control systems, naval ships and nearly 200 helicopters and rising numbers of National Guard troops.

Honoré followed, saying that while Mississippi was fairly stable, Louisiana remained “a big problem.” The Superdome was “under control and stable”—buses were finally getting through and over the previous 24 hours about 15,000 people had been evacuated.

The Convention Center remained “a crisis” that needed to be brought under control “in the next 12 hours.” He thought the people there merely wanted to get out.

Asked about the security situation by Chertoff, Honoré said that while there had been shootings, reports of rapes around the Superdome and Convention Center appeared to be exaggerated and looting was largely driven by people desperate to survive. Supplies of food and water were on the way but it would take time for troops to secure the area and distribute the commodities.

“General Honoré came across as fully in command, well informed about what needed to get done, and hard at work making it happen,” recalled McClellan.

He was followed by General Carl Strock, commander of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who gave a briefing on the effort to repair the levees. The floodwaters had stabilized and were receding, he said.

Then the conversation turned to federalizing the response. Bush said he believed that only the military was sufficiently organized and disciplined to properly respond. Keating responded that the military was ready. But no order was given or decision made.

That was followed by a discussion of the media coverage of the event. Someone complained that the media was showing and re-showing images of suffering that were days old without noting the fact and it was no wonder Americans had no confidence in the government response.

“We have a duty and a responsibility to think clearly,” Bush said, concluding the meeting. He then prepared to head down to the Gulf coast.[57]

 

*  *  * 

 

While New Orleans was the epicenter of media coverage and had the densest concentration of people, as Bush noted during his flyover, the entire Gulf Coast had been devastated to the point where it was often described as completely destroyed.

The devastation went as far east as the Florida panhandle. Alabama had suffered, although only two deaths were reported as a result of the storm. Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island took the brunt of 13-and-a-half foot storm surges, with the Bayou community losing 3,000 homes and the island 60 percent of its housing. Water spilled into downtown Mobile, flooding it and destroying hundreds of homes. A massive oil drilling platform was washed into Mobile Bay and became stuck under the US Highway 98 bridge. Damage went as far north as Tuscaloosa County.

But other than Louisiana, no state suffered like Mississippi.

“From the air, it looked like the hand of God had wiped off the map the entire fifty-mile Mississippi coastline,” recalled Rove. “I could see a wavy pattern back off the beach along the entire coast.”[58]

“Mississippi experienced a different storm than Louisiana — in essence, a massive, blender-like storm surge,” stated a congressional report issued after the hurricane. That surge rose as high as 34 feet in places and extended inland as far as 10 miles. More than half the state was without power and suffered enormous wind and water damage, in some cases from tornadoes. An estimated 66,000 Mississippians were homeless and towns such as Waveland, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian were flattened.[59]

One waterfront vacation home in Pascagoula that was destroyed belonged to Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi’s senior senator and a major power in the Senate.

In one small but particularly cruel irony, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Wade Guice Hurricane Museum in Biloxi, dedicated to the emergency manager who saved so many lives during Hurricane Camille.

The state of Mississippi initiated mandatory evacuations in five Gulf counties before the storm and although there were the inevitable holdouts who failed to evacuate, for the most part the evacuations went smoothly and efficiently, saving untold numbers of lives.

Governor Haley Barbour took a firm hand immediately after the storm subsided. In addition to having a well-developed and practiced emergency management agency, he declared martial law and announced that Mississippians who shot looters in self-defense would not be prosecuted. These measures prevented the kind of disorder that occurred in New Orleans. The Mississippians had learned from Camille.

Bush flew into the Mobile Regional Airport in Alabama that morning of Sept. 2. He was effusively greeted by Barbour, who had served as Republican National Committee chairman during Bush’s time as governor. He also greeted Alabama Governor Bob Riley and Brown, who had traveled to Mobile for the visit.

The meeting made for a great photo opportunity. The president stood over a table draped with a big, color satellite photo of Hurricane Katrina. Surrounding him were Mississippi’s two senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, Barbour, Riley, Brown, Chertoff and Alphonso Jackson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Though Bush was being briefed on the situation, he was also informing the men of the federal government’s efforts. Both Barbour and Riley described the way they had taken command of the situation and their ongoing efforts. Their assessments were largely upbeat and optimistic.

“Both were impressive leaders who had carried out effective evacuation plans, worked closely with local authorities, and launched recovery operations rapidly,” recalled Bush.

The president asked Barbour and Riley if they were getting the federal support they needed and both said they were. “That Mike Brown is doing a heck of a job,” Riley told the president.[60]

The atmosphere in the meeting has been described as that of a locker room after a winning game, with the members of the team congratulating themselves on a job well done. “It didn’t help that the President tended to act like a well-meaning fraternity boy who wanted everyone to like him,” recalled Brown.[61]

Brown later wrote that he requested time alone with Bush to appraise him of the dire situation in New Orleans but he was interrupted by White House Counselor Joe Hagin, who said that a press conference needed to begin right then.

At that press conference Riley and Barbour gave assessments of the situation and then it was Bush’s turn to speak.

Bush praised the Coast Guard’s efforts and congratulated the governors for being effective leaders. “You didn’t ask for this, when you swore in, but you’re doing a heck of a job,” he said. He pledged the federal government’s efforts to saving lives, cleaning up “this mess,” appropriating $10 billion to the effort and restoring order in New Orleans and Mississippi.

“I want to thank you for your strong statement of zero tolerance,” he said to the governors. “The people of this country expect there to be law and order, and we’re going to work hard to get it.”

He promised to get food to people and rebuild their communities.

“The good news is—and it’s hard for some to see it now—that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles 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,” he said to laughter.

“He’ll be glad to have you,” Riley interrupted.

Bush pledged that New Orleans would be a great city again and he thanked the surroundingstates for taking in evacuees.

The rest of Bush’s recitation was upbeat. The day before, he had announced creation of the Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund headed by his father and former President Bill Clinton. “My dad and Bill Clinton are going to raise money for governors’ funds,” he said. He promised that the affected states would have money for long-term consequences, faith-based groups would contribute and he encouraged people to donate to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

Bush seemed to be wrapping up. “Again, I want to thank you all for…” and then he realized he had left someone out of his recitation and digressed. “…and, Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job. The FEMA Director is working 24—they’re working 24 hours a day,” he said as he was interrupted by applause.

      He summed up: He was there to assure people that he would make things right.

      “I’m not looking forward to this trip,” he concluded. “I got a feel for it when I flew over before. It…for those who have not…trying to conceive what we’re talking about, it’s as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by a…the worst kind of weapon you can imagine. And now we’re going to go try to comfort people in that part of the world.”

      He may not have been looking forward to the trip but when it was finished he wouldn’t look back fondly on it, either.

 

*  *  * 

 

      For Ray Nagin, the day began in a room in the Hyatt different from the one he was originally assigned. While this room’s windows were blown out and shattered glass covered the floor, it was reasonably dry and allowed in a breeze—although a hot one.

      He didn’t really sleep that night and arose from bed with a pounding headache, so he took an aspirin. He checked his originally assigned room on the 27th floor, which had its windows but was stifling in the absence of air conditioning and then went to the ballroom area where all the news was bad: disorder continued; there were no buses; the floodwater was still high; the levees weren’t repaired.

      As he ate a granola bar for breakfast came more bad news: The Mandeville Street Wharf on the Mississippi River, which housed chemical containers, had erupted in an enormous explosion and was burning. This raised the possibility that toxic fumes would waft over the city. More wharves were catching fire and the densely-built French Quarter was threatened. Firefighters were doing their best and aircraft were dropping water.

      Then, more bad news: The Sewerage and Water Board power plant on the West Bank, the only functioning one, had been attacked by armed intruders attracted by its lights the previous night and although they were driven off, Marcia St. Martin wasn’t sure the Board could do it again if they came back. What was more, a firefight might set off the volatile chemicals stored there. The Board needed reinforcements.

      As he wrapped up the meeting with this litany of woes, Nagin happened to glance out the window and saw buses on the interstate highway headed toward the downtown. Amazed and delighted, Nagin called the rest of the staff to the window where they began whooping and hollering and giving each other high fives.

      Forman told Nagin that she had managed to talk to the White House. The callhad come in on her Blackberry at 5:30 am with the details of the president’s visit and scheduled arrival in New Orleans that afternoon. What was more, the White House had heard that Nagin had been critical of the response.

“So buses just happen to start arriving the day the president makes his first visit, how convenient,” Nagin said—facetiously, he later stated.

      At the Superdome people hugged and cheered and celebrated but then squeezed against barricades in a rush to board the buses. People outside the Superdome complex converged when they realized that buses were arriving. The hard-pressed 300 National Guard troops tried to maintain order and ensure an orderly boarding. It would be a very slow process.

      In the afternoon it was time for Nagin to make his way to the Superdome heliport for the ride to the airport. But even this short trip required a trek through the circles of New Orleans’ hell. At the Superdome, Nagin’s party was told the building’s basement was flooding, threatening the generator and they were updated on the crimes committed there, including one confirmed rape, whose perpetrator had been arrested.

      Once they all arrived at the airport, Nagin was separated from his staff, who were taken to air conditioned White House vans stocked with snacks, water and other food. For many it was their first real meal in days, even if it consisted of microwaved hot dogs. There they met Blanco’s staff as well. Terry Ebbert, the city emergency manager and a former Marine, fell asleep on the tarmac as soon as he found some shade.

      Having arrived an hour before the president, Nagin was escorted onto Air Force One, which, he was surprised to learn, was one of two. There he was taken to the president’s bathroom.

      When she was contacted early that morning, Forman made one request of the White House liaison who reached her: Could the mayor take a shower before meeting the president? None of the staff had showered since Katrina destroyed thecity’s water system.

      When told of the request, Nagin at first resisted. “How’s that going to look, Sally?” Nagin asked her. “‘He used Air Force One for a shower,’ is something people could misinterpret.”

      However, now, in the luxurious, private quarters of the president, with the presidential seal on the wall and a gift toiletry bag with the same seal in his hand, Nagin immediately stripped off his clothes and turned the water on full blast. “As the water hit me, it felt as though I had died and gone to heaven,” he recalled. He repeatedly lathered up and shaved, including his scalp.

      Nagin spent so long in the shower that the presidential orderly had to remind him twice that he had to leave to meet the president, eventually even kicking the door to make his point.

 

*  *  * 

 

      Following his stop in Mobile, Bush helicoptered over to Biloxi, which he characterized as “a wasteland. There were uprooted trees and debris strewn everywhere. Virtually no structures were standing.” There he spent time with victims, sitting with one man on the ruined steps of his home, while photographers recorded the event. From Biloxi, Bush returned to Air Force One and flew into New Orleans.

By this time, the physical hurricane had been replaced by a hurricane of blame. For five days New Orleanians had endured privation, anarchy and danger and the rest of America had experienced it along with them through their television sets. There was a sense of disbelief that these conditions existed in the United States and that the federal government, with all its capabilities and assets and strength, was allowing this to happen.

      Everyone in a position of authority was feeling the public opprobrium. The question now was how the public condemnation would be directed.

      As president, Bush had to take all the criticism for the federal government’s response. He had been savaged for his unengagement, for his month-long vacation, for his tardiness in returning to Washington, for his flyover, for what was regarded as the tepidness of his statements. He was being criticized for not caring about Blacks or the poor. He didn’t know it yet, but there would be more condemnation coming out of this day’s statements.

      As secretary of DHS, Chertoff had endured the fury of the president and his department was taking the blame for the poor response. He had largely left the response to FEMA but Brown was laying the blame for his inability to respond at Chertoff’s and DHS’ doorstep, criticizing its bureaucracy, slowness and preoccupation with terrorism for the poor response.

      As director of FEMA, Brown was the target of innumerable complaints about the sluggishness of the response, the absence of supplies, repeated promises of buses that didn’t materialize and pleas that went unanswered. FEMA personnel were being accused of stopping buses and aid and relief trying to get into the city because of bureaucratic rules and regulations.           

As governor, Blanco was being blamed for the slow state response, for indifference to New Orleans, for communities that closed their boundaries to poor Black New Orleanians who desperately wanted to walk away from the city but were stopped at town and parish lines by armed police and sheriffs’ deputies. In her eyes and the eyes of her staff, Karl Rove, the president and the White House were all deliberately trying to deflect blame from the president onto her. They were charging that she first failed to request aid from the federal government before switching gears and then making broad, general and vague requests that were impossible to fulfill. A federalization of the response, taking authority out of her hands, would confirm a growing view of her as incompetent, overwhelmed and emotional.

      As mayor, Nagin was being criticized for being slow and late in ordering an evacuation, for leaving too many people in the city during the storm, for holing up in the Hyatt, for losing control of his city and for all-around incompetence. Thanks to the Robinette interview, at least, he had established some credibility as someone who cared about the city and its people and was trying to speak out about it.

These were the players who sat down around a conference table in Air Force One. Bush sat at the head of the table with Chertoff at the opposite end. Nagin sat next to Bush, strangely attired in a t-shirt with the word “Desire” on it, a reference to New Orleans’ Desire Street and in Nagin’s view, an expression of the city’s desire for assistance with dignity. However, paired with his neatly pressed and pleated dress pants, it was an odd-looking combination. Next to him were Louisiana’s two senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter. Karl Rove sat directly behind Landrieu, on a sofa.  Blanco sat to Bush’s right with representatives Republican Bobby Jindal and Democrat William Jefferson next to her. Also present was Gen. Stephen Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau.[62]

      Bush entered the room, casually attired in his Air Force One jacket and greeted everyone. Lunch was served and then the group got down to business.

      The impressions of the meeting varied wildly.

Nagin recalled that as people briefed the president on the latest rescue and recovery efforts “everyone was extremely cordial” as they discussed their needs. By contrast, Bush recalled that “the tone started out tense and got worse.” Rove recalled that neither Blanco nor Nagin provided any useful information on the situation.

      According to Bush, Nagin and Blanco bickered and everyone blasted FEMA. Jindal pointed out that FEMA was asking people to e-mail their requests for help—at a time when the city had no electricity.

Both Bush and Rove remember Landrieu as extraordinarily emotional, breaking into the conversation with “a wild, emotional outburst about how children were dying on rooftops and in attics all over New Orleans,” as Rove put it. She calmed down but then did it again, in Rove’s view “making outlandish, totally unsubstantiated charges and ridiculous requests.” Bush called her outbursts “emotional” and “unproductive.”

“Would you please be quiet?” Bush said to her at one point.

      Everyone at the table was given the opportunity to speak, with Nagin going last.

According to his own recollection, Nagin stated, “Mr. President, with all due respect, if you and the governor don’t get on the same page, this disaster will continue to degrade into something that is going to be a further embarrassment to the nation. There has to be single person who has full authority to direct all critical resources. Someone likeGeneral Honoré would be great. We need a decision now!”

This roughly coincides with Rove’s recollection. The idea of putting a single person in charge was also the White House position, he recalled. However, “it became clear that four days into the crisis, the governor and the mayor were simply not communicating with each other.” Blanco opposed a single commander.

“Who’s in charge of security in New Orleans?” asked Bush, quieting a discussion that was becoming increasingly raucous.

      “The governor is in charge,” Nagin said, pointing to Blanco.

      According to Bush, “Every head pivoted in her direction. The Louisiana governor froze. She looked agitated and exhausted. ‘I think it’s the mayor,’ she said noncommittally.”

      Rove found the exchange “astonishing.” In his view, “That captured, in a nutshell, our problem.”

      But Blanco saw it differently. The conversation had gotten heated and Nagin pounded his fist when he said he needed action. He had used obscenities and she considered him unprofessional. Politically, he appeared to be in the Bush camp, no matter what he had said on WWL the day before.

      “We always sensed that he was used as a tool, as a buffer,” she told author Douglas Brinkley in a December 2005 interview. “It was bizarre, you know, that little[‘get your asses down here’] remark he made on national TV. …When we met on Air Force One, Nagin was falling apart. He was near nervous breakdown.”[63]

      Whether he was breaking down or not, after hearing Nagin’s proposal for a single commander, Bush responded, “I hear you, Mr. Mayor,” according to Nagin.

      This prompted Nagin to push further and say, “Mr. President, this is so critical and so time-sensitive that all of us at this table will leave right now and go to another room so that you and the governor can get down to business.”

      Bush responded, “No, there is no need for all of you to move. The governor and I can go into the Oval Office down the hall and have a private discussion.” Then he winked at Nagin and the two left the room.

When they were alone, Bush told Blanco that it was clear that state and local forces were overwhelmed.

“Governor, you need to authorize the federal government to take charge of the response,” he told her.

Rove adds to the substance of Bush and Blanco’s conversation. According to him, Bush “reminded her that federal law prohibited the military from being turned over to a governor in order to provide law enforcement.” He also cited two means of federalizing the disaster; by her request or by declaring a state of insurrection, which he was willing to do. He would then send in the 82nd Airborne Division. “But the message would be that Louisiana’s officials were incompetent and unable to keep the peace,” he told her.

He put forward another proposal: A dual command structure under which Honoré would report to her as commander of the National Guard in Louisiana and to Bush as commander of federal troops.

       While Blanco seemed inclined to accept that idea, she said she wanted 24 hours to think about it.

      “We don’t have 24 hours,” Bush replied. “We’ve waited too long already.”

      Blanco refused to respond.

      “Despite my repeated urging, she made clear that she wasn’t going to give me an answer on federalizing the response. There was nothing to gain by pushing her harder; the governor was dug in,” Bush recollected.

 

*  *  * 

 

      While Bush and Blanco conferred, Nagin left the conference table to use the bathroom and when he returned Landrieu asked to speak to him privately. “She was very animated and extremely angry with her face starting to turn red,” Nagin recalled—although he states that he could not follow exactly what she was berating him about. “She was ranting and raving to me about things that Democrats and Republicans fight about in Washington, DC.” She insisted that Nagin not smile when he was with the president or posing for pictures, that he should not trust anything the president said and that Rove was evil.

      Nagin found himself losing his temper and tried to cut her off but she snapped “You really don’t understand. This is big!” according to his recollection. “She kept going and her face was now beet red and she was talking so loud that everyone nearby prettymuch heard her.” Accordingly, he returned to the table and told everyone to stop playing political games.

      Blanco returned to the conference room and took her seat without speaking. Then Bush returned and invited Nagin to come with him to his office. Once there, Nagin sat across the desk from the president.

      Bush recounted his conversation with Blanco and told Nagin she had asked for 24 hours to consider it. Nagin was incredulous. He was equally surprised when Bush said he was not inclined to overrule her and order in troops unilaterally. Nagin pushed Bush to do that but the president refused. Finally, Nagin thanked him for his efforts and expressed hope the governor would change her mind.

      The conference was over. It was now time to tour the city, which was going to be done in three helicopters. The party split into two groups with Bush asking Nagin to come with him on his helicopter. Blanco, Chertoff and Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen were in the second helicopter, which Blanco and her staff regarded as a deliberate snub. Blanco wanted her husband, Coach, to be included but there was no room. The third helicopter carried the White House press corps.

      They flew over the city and landed at the 17th Street Canal, which was now a beehive of activity as trucks, helicopters and people labored to plug the breach. Nagin took the opportunity to explore on his own until a Secret Service agent told him the president was asking for him. For the rest of the stop, Bush made sure Nagin was with him and in every photo, while Blanco and Landrieu were kept away.

      There was further touring and then the party returned to the airport for a press conference, which was dominated by Bush, who promised that the nation’s attention would be focused on the city “for a long period of time.”

      The presidential visit was over. Bush climbed back on Air Force One and flew back to Washington. Nagin returned to the Hyatt with his party. Blanco returned to Baton Rouge.

      Once back at the hotel Nagin briefed Forman on the meeting on Air Force One. He remained astonished that Blanco had requested a 24-hour delay. Forman pointed out the restrictions of the Posse Comitatus Act. Nagin was unconvinced.

      “I don’t get it for any reason,” he said. “She could have owned this. She could have walked out on that tarmac with the president and said, ‘We have a solution to the problems’ and she would have been the hero.”

 

*  *  * 

 

As Bush, Blanco and Nagin were having their conference in Air Force One, trucks full of National Guard soldiers came rolling down Poydras Street toward the Convention Center.

      The night before, Honoré had conferred with Maj. Gen. Bennie Landreneau, commander of the Louisiana National Guard. The two agreed that they were embarked on a humanitarian mission and that their troops would not carry loaded guns, although they would have live ammunition available and could defend themselves if attacked.

      The troops arriving at the Convention Center were National Guardsmen; many, though not all, from Louisiana. They were arriving to deliver food and water and were charged with maintaining crowd control as the goods were distributed.

      However, Honoré was horrified to see that the troops had their guns at the ready, poised to conduct a combat operation and shoot their way into the Convention Center. “A soldier leaning over the cab in the lead truck had his M16 up and ready to fire as if he was on patrol in downtown Baghdad, not downtown New Orleans,” Honoré recalled. At the same moment half a dozen trucks full of New Orleans police and tactical weapons team members from around the country pulled into the street, all of them tensed as though expecting an ambush, their weapons up and ready for a fight.

      Honoré shouted at the soldier in the first truck: “Get those weapons down! Hey! Weapons down! Weapons down, dammit! Put the weapons down!” He began moving along the line of trucks. “Put that weapon on your back! You’re delivering food!” He had subordinates issue the order to the rest of the men on the trucks, worried that the crowd would grow fearful when they were really being helped.

      The soldiers complied, putting down their weapons. The trucks stopped at the Convention Center and the soldiers dismounted. Then they got down to the business of distributing food and water.

      That evening Landreneau requested an urgent conference with Honoré and the two met at the Superdome. Though he hadn’t been present, Landreneau had heard what happened that afternoon. “You can’t tell my soldiers what to do!” he said to Honoré, with an edge in his voice.

      Honoré wanted to preserve a good working relationship, agreed and apologized. But Landreneau was also angry that Honoré had personally overseen distribution of the supplies. He thought Honoré should have remained behind the lines and allowed lower-ranking soldiers to handle the distribution. Honoré responded that he had been there because there were so many unknowns and he wanted to personally oversee the distribution.

      As it turned out, the distribution was anticlimactic, in Honoré’s words. There was no stampede for the supplies. A fewhundred people out of the nearly 20,000 people at the Convention Center picked up water and MREs but most MREs sat unopened in a parking lot for weeks. Honoré took the disinterest as a good sign—the people just wanted out of the area and as long as he kept his promises there would be no trouble.[64]

      However, the conflict between Landreneau and Honoré demonstrated in microcosm, at street level, the tension between the state and the federal government in responding to the disaster. It was a tension that remained to be played out between the president and the governor.

 

*  *  * 

     

That night, on Bush’s return to the White House, Andrew Card presented the president with a proposal drafted by him, White House Counsel Harriett Miers and a team of lawyers, codifying the dual-command proposal. It was faxed to Blanco just before midnight, according to Bush.    

      The following morning a call came from Baton Rouge. Blanco declined the proposal.

      “I was exasperated,” Bush recalled.

      However, the White House team had also come up with a simple alternativesolution: Send in the federal troops but don’t give them law enforcement powers. They would be on the ground to support response efforts, provide supplies and establish “presence” but law enforcement would remain in the hands of the police and National Guard. That way there would be no violation of the Posse Comitatus Act or any need to invoke the Insurrection Act.

      It was a solution with risks, as Bush well recognized. The troops would not be able to deal with lawbreaking if they saw it or fight back if attacked. “If they got caught in a crossfire, it would be my fault,” he recalled. “But I decided that sending troops with diminished authority was better than not sending them at all.”[65]

      At 10:00 am Washington time, Bush went into the Rose Garden to announce the deployment of over 7,000 active duty troops to New Orleans without law enforcement powers. They would be under the command of Honoré.

      Those troops would be coming from the 82nd Airborne Division, the 1st and 2nd Marine Expeditionary Forces and the 1st Cavalry Division.

      At long last the cavalry—literally—would arrive.

 

*  *  *

Of all the human failures during Katrina, Blanco’s request to Bush for 24 hours before making up her mind whether to allow in federal troops represented a true failure of leadership. Federalization of the response would have taken it out of her hands and reflected badly on her governorship and politically, she feared it would confirm that blame for the debacle rested at her doorstep. On the other hand, the federal government could provide the personnel and resources that New Orleans desperately needed and that the state and municipality simply could not provide.

Blanco’s reluctance to permit federalization was understandable—but her inability to decide was unforgivable.

Leadership consists of making such decisions, many unpalatable or difficult, under extreme pressure. During the midst of a disaster every second counts and lives are at stake. Blanco’s indecision was the most obvious, direct and blatant failure at the political, policymaking level. If Blanco wasn’t going to allow federalization, she should have simply rejected it at the time the suggestion was made so that everyone could move on with alternatives or other options. If she was going to keep the response purely in state hands, she should have accepted the consequences and proceeded to do what needed to be done. Instead, she added hours more delay to the response and tied up federal, state and municipal assets.

It was not her only failure. As the Senate report pointed out, her requests for assistance from the president were “inadequate and erroneous” and were not made before the storm but only afterward.[66]

Nagin and Blanco also failed together as teammates who were presumably on the same team. They were never able to coordinate their responses and this was demonstrated in front of President Bush on Air Force One. Prior to the storm both made an effort to work together and they tried to overcome their past political differences. But once the storm hit, both displayed an ignorance of their own statutory authority and there developed an intensifying personal animosity. Nagin thought he was being used by Blanco for her own political and publicity purposes; she regarded him as nearing a breakdown, being wild and emotional, even delusional, and willingly serving as a political pawn of a White House she regarded with hostility.

 

*  *  * 

      Of all the leadership failures of Hurricane Katrina, none, ultimately, was as great as President George W. Bush’s. It was not as though he was uncaring; once aware of the devastation, which only really seems to have sunk in during his Aug. 31 flyover of the region, he became increasingly active and in the days after he visited New Orleans, he pledged massive amounts of aid, vowed that the city would rebuild and made 13 trips to the region.

      Bush later acknowledged the failures of both his response and the federal response as a whole.

“The response was not only flawed but, as I said at the time, unacceptable,” Bush later reflected. “As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”

      The mea culpa is true—as far as it goes—but in a disaster, taking too long to decide is tantamount to not deciding at all and the failure to make decisions can be fatal to those on the ground desperately awaiting rescue and relief. In this regard, Bush’s slow decisionmaking was the near-equivalent of Blanco’s indecisiveness.

      Just how inadequate the presidential response was in Katrina can be seen when compared to President Nixon’s actions in the run-up to Camille. In the days prior to that hurricane, Nixon consulted with Governor Bell, put his vice president in charge of liaising with the state to both show his concern and provide high level contact, offered any and all assistance that the affected states might need and ensured that the federal government and the military moved and moved fast into the area to assist the states and residents. Mostly, he demonstrated engagement, attention and imagination in preparing a response and executing it. Even if he did not appear on the ground until 22 days after Camille made landfall—following his own Air Force One flyover—when he arrived he did so to a hero’s welcome that comforted the victims.

      Bush did take some actions prior to Katrina’s landfall. He participated in a videoteleconference with emergency managers in which he basically reassured them that they would have all the resources they needed; he mentioned Katrina in remarks in Arizona and San Diego; he declared emergencies in advance of landfall, as requested. However, he showed little imagination or active engagement. The contrast with Nixon highlights this since Nixon demonstrated many of the tools a president has at his disposal, his legal restraints notwithstanding. The fact that it took Bush three days to come up with a relatively simple solution to the federalization issue was not a display of the workings of a quick, bold or agile mind.

      Perhaps Scott McClellan had the most perceptive inside analysis of the White House workings and the reason for the tepid preparation and response: “The problem lay in our mind-set,” he recalled. “Our White House team had already weathered many disasters, from the hurricanes of the previous year all the way back to the unprecedented calamity of 9/11. As a result, we were probably a little numb (‘What,another tragedy?’) and perhaps a little complacent (‘We’ve been through this before’). We assumed that local and federal officials would do their usual yeoman’s work at minimizing the devastation, much as the more seasoned Florida officials had done the year before, and we recalled how President Bush had excelled at reassuring and comforting the nation in the wake of past calamities. Instead of planning and acting for the potential worst-case scenario, we took a chance that Katrina would not be as unmanageable, overwhelming, or catastrophic as it turned out. So we allowed our institutional response to go on autopilot.”[67]

      In addition to the indecisiveness and slow decisionmaking, there was the issue of perception. 

“I made an additional mistake by failing to adequately communicate my concern for the victims of Katrina,” Bush reflected. “This was a problem of perception, not reality. My heart broke at the sight of helpless people trapped on their rooftops waiting to be rescued. I was outraged by the fact that the most powerful country in the world could not deliver water to mothers holding their dehydrated babies under the baking sun.” Despite his subsequent visits and efforts to show compassion, “many of our citizens, particularly in the African American community, came away convinced their president didn’t care about them.”[68]

      This is putting it mildly. From a public relations and public perception standpoint, Katrina was probably the worst handled disaster since the Great Fire of Rome.

      Nor was it just Bush who contributed to the perception of indifference and ignorance of what was happening.

“If the president was less than stellar, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice truly didn’t understand both the image and the reality,” recalled Michael Brown. As if to grind in the message of the administration’s disinterest, Rice, still in Washington, DC-vacation mode, went on her own holiday in New York City. On the night of Aug. 31, she attended the Broadway musical comedy “Spamalot.” When the house lights came up and she was recognized, she was booed. The next day she played tennis with retired tennis pro Monica Seles and then went shopping at the Ferragamo shoe store, where she bought several thousand dollars worth of shoes. A fellow shopper, recognizing her, shouted “How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!”

Rice, thought Brown, “had no sense of image during Katrina.”[69]

But Brown hardly provided a better impression.

He found the media as a whole largely annoying and distracting, with national news celebrities insisting on going out in boats and taking up spaces that were needed for lifesaving. He thought them self-important, biased and their compassion fleeting and superficial. “I felt I had neither the time nor inclination to try and educate the men and women from the media I thought were acting like fools,” he recalled.

Yet even if he thought the media celebrities were fools, Brown himself seemed utterly ignorant of the situation, which he only seemed to confirm with every media interview he gave. After being caught short by BrianWilliams, on Sept. 1 he was savaged again when he was interviewed by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, who was incredulous when he stated that he had only learned of the crowds in the Convention Center the day before. It was starting to seem that no story on Katrina was complete without an admission of ignorance from Brown.

 

*  *  *

      Hurricane Katrina devastated the Bush administration’s political standing just as much as it devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast—or as much as Hurricane Andrew had devastated the election prospects of Bush’s father.

      “In a national catastrophe, the easiest person to blame is the president,” Bush later reflected. “The legacy of fall 2005 lingered for the rest of my time in office.” Despite his successful election victory the previous November, Bush started suffering legislative reversals, his approval ratings plummeted, Democrats and some Republicans decided they would gain greater credit by opposing him than supporting him. Even his conduct of the Iraq war was called into question and a special commission appointed to assess its status. “By the end of 2005, much of my political capital was gone,” he reflected.

      Bush himself enumerated some of his errors. “I should have urged Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to evacuate New Orleans sooner. I should have come straight back to Washington from California on Day Two or stopped in Baton Rouge on Day Three. I should have done more to signal my determination to help, the way I did in the days after 9/11,” he reflected.

      “My biggest substantive mistake was waiting too long to deploy active-duty troops. By Day Three, it was clear that federal troops were needed to restore order. If I had it to do over again, I would have sent the 82nd Airborne immediately, without law enforcement authority. I hesitated at the time because I didn’t want to leave our troops powerless to stop sniper attacks and the other shocking acts of violence we were hearing about on TV.”

      The fact is that for President Bush—and for FEMA and Michael Brown, the Department of Homeland Security and Michael Chertoff and for the United States government as a whole—the response to Hurricane Katrina was a devastating blow. An argument can be made that the failed response so shook confidence in American government that when a financial crisis erupted in September 2008 the lack of faith in government competence contributed to the subsequent panic and a severe recession.

 


* It is difficult to find precisely the right word to describe this aspect of Bush’s personality. The president was not “aloof” or “indifferent” and he could show that he cared. Nor was he “remote” or “distant” because he could immerse himself in a problem. “Incurious” certainly describes an aspect of Bush’s personality but only an element, not the totality. “Disengagement” implies that he was engaged at one time and then disengaged but that does not seem entirely accurate either. I have used “unengaged” as the single, simple word that most closely seems to sum up Bush’s regular approach to the world.

[1] Knabb, Richard D., Rhome, Jamie R., and Brown, Daniel P., “Tropical CycloneReport: Hurricane Katrina, 23-30 August 2005,” National Hurricane Center, 20 December 2005.
[2] United States Senate, Special Report of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared, US Government Printing Office, 2006, page 441.
[3] Hustmyre, Chuck, “Eyewitness to the FEMA Fiasco,” HSToday, (Homeland Security Today), October 2005, page 12.
[4] Brinkley, Douglas, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, William Morrow, New York, 2006, page 276.
[5] Senate, page 37.
[6] “Profile: Ray Nagin,” BBC News, May 21, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4623922.stm, accessed May 12, 2011.
[7] Brinkley, page 23.
[8] Interview with the author, Oct. 17, 2011
[9] Cooper, Christopher and Block, Robert, Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, Times Books, 2006, page 19.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Interview with the author, Oct. 17, 2011.
[12] Correspondence with the author, June 1, 2011.
[13] Senate, page 67.
[14] Personal experience of the author.
[15] Senate, op cit.
[16] Forman, Sally, Eye of the Storm: Inside City Hall During Katrina, Author-House, Bloomington, Ind., 2007, page 33.
[17] Interview with the author, Oct. 17, 2011.
[18] Senate, page 248.
[19] Nagin, C. Ray, Katrina’s Secrets: Storms After The Storm, C. Ray Nagin, 2011, page 41.
[20] Nagin, page 46.
[21] Brinkley, pages 58 and 59. The story of Mayfield’s conversation with Blanco is based on Brinkley’s interview with Blanco. Nagin’s reaction is based on a CNN interview by Anderson Cooper, Jan. 20, 2006, cited by Brinkley.
[22] Forman, pages 42-43.
[23] Bush, George W., Decision Points, Crown Publishers, New York, 2010, page 314.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Op. cit., page 594.
[26] Interview with the author, Oct. 17, 2011.
[27] Ibid., page 89.
[28] Bush, page 316.
[29] Unraveling what occurred during this visit and the accompanying helicopter rides is like unraveling the Japanese play “Rashoman.” Blanco and Landrieu’s side of the story come largely from Brinkley, The Great Deluge, pages 280 to 286, since he had extensive access to both individuals. Nagin’s side comes from Katrina’s Secrets, pages 108 to 111, and Brown’s side comes from Deadly Indifference, pages 103 to 110.
[30] Brinkley, page 287.
[31] Rove, Karl, Courage and Consequences: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, Threshold Editions, New York, NY, 2010 page 447.
[32] Bush, page 13.
[33] Bush, page 311.
[34] Interview with the author, July 1, 2011.
[35] Commission on Presidential Debates, Oct. 3, 2000 transcript, http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-3-2000-transcript, accessed June 5, 2011.
[36] Adair, Bill, “10 years ago, her angry plea got hurricane aid moving,” St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 20, 2002, http://www.sptimes.com/2002/webspecials02/andrew/day3/story1.shtml, accessed June 5, 2011.
[37] Wines, Michael, “THE 1992 CAMPAIGN: Political Memo; The Hurricane and Bush: an Opportunity Missed?” The New York Times, Aug. 29, 1992.
[38] Op. cit.
[39] Suskind, Ron, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, New York, NY, 2004, page 149.
[40] Suskind, Ron, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, NY, page 2.
[41] Bamford, James, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, First Anchor Books, April 2002, Page 633.
[42] The White House, “President Participates in Conversation on Medicare,” http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/08/20050829-5.html, accessed July 19, 2011.
[43] Lipton, Eric, “White House Knew of Levee’s Failure on Nightof Storm,” New York Times, Feb. 10, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/10/politics/10katrina.html?ei=5094&en=914abcf6c2b5fc5a&hp=&ex=1139634000&partner=homepage&pagewanted=all, accessed, Aug. 3, 2011.
[44] Bush, page 317.
[45] McClellan, Scott, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, PublicAffairs, New York, NY, 2008, page 281.
[46] Bush, page 319.
[47] This account was given to the author by a source who requested anonymity.
[48] Bush, pages 320-321.
[49] Williams, Brian, "In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina," Oct. 27, 2005, Sundance channel, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14518359/ns/nightly_news-after_katrina/t/brian-williams-we-were-witnesses/, accessed Aug. 7, 2011.
[50] McClellan, page 283.
[51] New York Times, “Waiting for a Leader,” Sept. 1, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/01/opinion/01thu1.html, accessed Aug. 4, 2011
[52] Nagin, page 137.
[53] Forman, pages 117-118.
[54] Op cit., pages 138-139.
[55] Williams, op cit.
[56] This account comes from Nagin, pages 187 to 197 and Forman pages 133 to 135 and 139. The entire interview can be heard on audio at http://www.archive.org/details/WWL_Radio_Interview_New_Orleans_Mayor_Ray_Nagin_, accessed Aug. 10, 2011.
[57] The account of the meeting is from McClellan, pages 286-288.
[58] Rove, page 449.
[59] US House of Representatives, A Failure of Initiative: Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, Feb. 15, 2006, page 7.
[60] Bush, page 321.
[61] Brinkley, page 547 and Brown, page 150.
[62] The account of the meeting and the discussions is from Bush, Rove, Nagin and Brinkley.
[63] Brinkely, page 570.
[64] Honoré, Russel L., Martz, Ron, Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family from Disasters, Atria Books, New York, NY, 2009, pages 132-133.
[65] Bush, page 323.
[66] Ibid., page 591.
[67] McLellan, pages 279-80.
[68] Bush, page 310.
[69] Brown, Michael D. and Schwarz, Ted, Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm, Hurricane Katrina, The Bush White House and Beyond, Taylor Trade Publishing, Lanham, Md., 2011, pages 123-124.
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