"Don't tell me the federal response was slow....”
At his final press conference today president Bush defended the government's response to hurricane Katrina and further rationalized what have proven, in the wake of the largest disaster in US history, a set of failed policies.
Admitting that “things could have been done better,” Bush rebuked the point that he should have landed and surveyed the scene himself, rather than simply gazing out the window in a fly over of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast:
"I've thought long and hard about Katrina; you know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. The problem with that ... is that law enforcement would have been pulled away from the mission."
Bush did not spell out as to why law enforcement officers would necessarily have been “pulled away from the mission” if he had landed.
It's not uncommon for heads of state, governors, and other officials to land in disaster hit areas, and in past cases it hasn't impeded the recovery effort. Usually it provides a major boost by fixing the national attention and assuring locals that all resources are being mobilized. President Lyndon Johnson flew to New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Betsy, and as the press accounts of his visit recount it, he stepped into the flooded streets of the 9th Ward, wading into a church shelter to exclaim, “this is your president, I am here to help.”
During California's recent firestorms which displaced thousands and created ongoing havoc for days and weeks, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was often moving right along the front lines with firefighters and other emergency personnel. In fact, the governor had to cancel many previously booked speaking and social engagements because his attention was required on hand to orchestrate the statewide efforts and focus the administration's resources.
Bush himself has made on-site landings in disaster areas. His most famous moment, easily the high water mark of his presidency came when he climbed atop the rubble of ground zero in Manhattan and surrounded by first responders who paused to listen, spoke to the fears and sadness of the nation. It was also a bloodthirsty speech that would soon morph into a manipulative campaign of “war on terror.”
The difference seems to be political. Whereas 9-11 was seen as a moment of national import, and measured by Bush's political strategists as a profoundly opportune disaster to rally the nation's spirits, Katrina was seen as something else. An unfortunate event. A storm with little political value. A storm that was killing and displacing mostly poor people, black people, most of them not core constituents of the Republican Party or Bush political machine. What would be opportune about Katrina's devestation would come much later, during the privatized reconstruction efforts and mass enclosures of land and public goods (like hospitals, transport, education). Swooping in to immediately boost the first responders and fix the administration's attention on saving lives and keeping communities intact was not seen as a priority.
Contained in Bush's statement are some profound clues as to his perception of the disaster and the Katrina diaspora. Again, his own words were that he should not have landed because “law enforcement” would have been “pulled away” from its “mission.” Notice he didn't say because “first responders,” would have been distracted from “saving lives.”
Bush seems to have looked at the post-Katrina disaster zone of New Orleans much as he did post-invasion Iraq. The “mission” involved “law enforcement” because the mission was fundamentally about patrolling the streets, “keeping order” among the masses of victims, shooting “looters,” etc.
Perhaps Bush was right. Swooping in with his jet, landing, making a visit would have required a security detail of comparable magnitudes. Not because of New Orleans was a war zone, mind you, but rather because Bush turned it into a war zone, set policies making it a war zone. The few visits he has made to New Orleans have involved huge police mobilizations. His motorcades made up of large black tinted SUVs usually race across town to view various signs of “recovery.” Then it's off to a few photo ops, and within hours he's back in the air, back to the big green zone of Washington D.C.