2001 Federal Emergency Management Agency issues a report stating that a hurricane hitting New Orleans is one of the three most likely U.S. disasters — after a terrorist attack on New York City and an earthquake in San Francisco. That same year, the Bush administration slashes federal funding of key disaster-mitigation programs, and Project Impact, a Clinton-initiated disaster-relief program, is dumped by Republicans.
In June, The Times-Picayune publishes a prizewinning series on the federal funding problem. The newspaper warns that the levees will not protect the city from a water surge such as that caused by Katrina. FEMA head Joe Allbaugh, a Bush appointee, resigns to start up a consulting firm for companies that want to do business in Iraq.
FEMA is absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, its preparation and planning functions assigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA’s mission changes to battling terrorism and disaster response and recovery. Outside experts warn against dividing responsibilities for preparedness and response and recovery.
FEMA turns down Louisiana’s pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. The budget for bolstering levees to hold back Lake Pontchartrain is cut by more than 80 percent. That same year, four environmental groups conclude that, without wetlands protection, New Orleans can be destroyed by an ordinary hurricane. The chairman of the White House’s council on environmental quality calls the study “highly questionable.”
Local media in Louisiana question for months why more than 4,000 disaster-specialist members of the state’s National Guard are in Iraq with convoys of high-water vehicles, Humvees, generators and other heavy equipment. This summer, a request by Louisiana for federal flood-mitigation funds is brushed aside by Washington.
August 27 Responding to Blanco from his ranch, Bush officially declares a state of emergency in Louisiana. “The president’s action authorized the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster-relief efforts,” said the White House press office. The feds are officially in charge.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin calls for a mandatory evacuation of the city’s 485,000 residents. Traffic jams occur along major highways. Others stay behind in their homes or wait in line for hours to seek shelter in the Superdome arena. By 5 p.m., the number seeking refuge there reaches as many as 30,000. Three nursing-home residents die during an evacuation to Baton Rouge. Much of the oil production in the Gulf of Mexico (one-quarter of all American oil production) is shut down.
Bush pops up from his ranch vacation after five days of seclusion, to tell reporters, “We will do everything in our power to help the people in the communities affected by this storm,” but focuses on trying to put a positive spin on the slim chances for passage of the draft Iraqi constitution while also predicting there will be an increase in insurgent attacks leading up to the October 15 referendum.
Katrina hits the Gulf Coast in the early morning. First reports make it clear that the damage will be catastrophic. Fifty-eight people are reported dead; most in Mississippi, where Katrina dumps seawater six miles inland, obliterating homes, apartment complexes, motels, casinos and docks. Some hard-hit Gulf Coast towns are completely shut off. In New Orleans, winds shred part of the Superdome roof. An estimated 40,000 homes are flooded in St. Bernard Parish, a suburb directly east of New Orleans. There are scattered reports of looting.
Meanwhile, Bush touts his drug plan to senior citizens at a mobile-home park in Arizona and touches on soaring gas prices and illegal immigration, promising to increase efforts to stop illegal border crossings. Later, while delivering a similar pitch at a senior citizens’ center in Rancho Cucamonga, Bush tells the crowd not to worry about the hurricane: “For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we are prepared to help — don’t be. We are.” Bush and first lady Laura Bush spend the night at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.
In New Orleans, 80 percent of the city is flooded. Water plants fail and sewers overflow. Public-health officials say the floodwaters are a breeding ground for disease. Hundreds of stranded survivors sit atop roofs. The mayor reports that bodies are floating down flooded streets. Storm currents topple the twin span bridges over Lake Pontchartrain. Downed wires spark dozens of fires. Crowds break into stores, wheeling off stolen goods in shopping carts. At least 50 people are arrested for looting. Four million people are left without electricity. In Mississippi, rescuers recover 100 bodies.
Bush, in a 34-minute speech, marks the 60th anniversary of V-J Day at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, and vows that the United States will triumph over terrorism, just as it triumphed over imperial Japan in World War II. Bush opens his remarks by expressing his support for the those hit by the hurricane, saying they’ll need our prayers and compassion. “Federal agencies have been ordered into action,” he says. The president also offers yet another reason for American troops to continue fighting: to protect Iraq’s vast oil fields from Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In New Orleans, 60,000 people reportedly are stranded without shelter. The mayor predicts that “at minimum, hundreds” and “most likely thousands” of city residents are in underwater graves. Two females, including one child, reportedly are raped in the Superdome. Survivors on the streets scavenge for food and shelter while others, waiting on rooftops, risk dehydration. As widespread looting continues and becomes increasingly violent, Mayor Nagin orders the police force to stop rescue missions and concentrate on security, but admits that there are too few officers to stop the crime.
Bush finally views the disaster area, from aboard Air Force One as he returns from his monthlong vacation in Texas. In a speech, Bush says, “The devastation I saw was very emotional. It is so devastating it is hard to describe it.” e added, “I understand the anxiety of people on the ground . . . But I want people to know there’s a lot of help coming.”Bush also says he will not pull back troops from Iraq to help deal with the crisis.
Mayor Nagin issues a “desperate SOS” and, during an emotional interview at a local radio station, lashes out at federal officials: “They don’t have a clue what’s going on down here,” he says, adding, “Get off your asses, and let’s do something.”
Washington urges patience, and Bush finally signs emergency legislation for a $10.5 billion federal relief bill. Representative Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) calls the federal response “nothing short of a national disgrace” and compares Bush’s reluctance to cut into this vacation to when he “dropped everything” to fly back to Washington from Crawford to sign legislation to save Terri Schiavo.
A New York Times editorial describes Bush’s speech that day as one of the worst of his life: “In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed,” adding, “and nothing about the president’s demeanor yesterday — which seemed casual to the point of carelessness — suggested that he understood the depth of the current crisis.”
Bush admits early in the day that the federal responses to the hurricane “are not acceptable,” but later, in Biloxi, Mississippi, he backtracks, saying that his earlier comments were “not denigrating the efforts of anybody,” adding, “I am satisfied with the response. I’m not satisfied with all the results.” While in Biloxi, during a press conference, Bush embraces two sisters who say they need clothes. Bush directs the distraught women to a nearby Salvation Army Center, only to be told that it has been wiped out by the hurricane. Later that day, Bush brushes aside calls to pull resources from the war in Iraq to handle hurricane cleanup. “We’ll do both. We’ve got plenty of resources to do both,” he says.
In New Orleans, fires break out throughout the day; most are left to burn. Smoke from a morning explosion at a chemical depot darkens the sky. Major General Bruce Green, an Air Force medical officer, says that those still in the city are at risk from dehydration, stress and mosquito-borne diseases. With more reports of people famished and dehydrated along the Gulf Coast, questions arise about why the military has not been dropping food packets for them. One and a half million people are still without electric power. In Houston, after accepting 15,000 people who waited hours to be processed, officials declare that the Astrodome is full. Packed buses are sent to the Reliant Arena, down the street, and the convention center while others are re-routed to San Antonio and Dallas.