Disaster response threatens to swamp Bush administration

For U.S. presidents, there is an unwritten rule book for disaster recovery, and the first rule is, "Act fast." The second rule is, "Send it all."

President Bush's Rose Garden speech on Wednesday, promising hurricane-shocked Americans, "We're going to succeed," was a skimpy counterweight to a disaster story line that threatened to swamp him.

The president's nine-minute enumeration of federal help for victims of Katrina -- including release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve -- carried the whiff of bureaucracy still assembling its clipboards. The New York Times condemned Bush's talk as "one of the worst speeches of his life" and said that his appearance "a day later than he was needed ... seems to be a ritual in this administration." Bush was forced to speak about what would be coming to survivors. But the television cameras were three days ahead of him.

Journalists who waded through the carnage in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama depicted a catastrophe made more dire because local, state, and federal responders were overwhelmed. CNN's Anderson Cooper, fresh from reporting on famine in Africa, conducted a testy interview from Mississippi with the bleary-eyed director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and challenged him to explain why air-drops of food and water had not arrived.

Fox News Network's reporter, with microphone in hand on a New Orleans overpass, kept the cameras rolling as his crew flagged down a police officer and pleaded with him to drive a visibly exhausted mother and her feverish five-day-old infant to medical aid. The FNN correspondent told a somber Brit Hume at the anchor desk that rescuers had plucked the pair from flooded public housing and simply deposited them on the chaotic roadway, with no water, transportation, or advice about where to go. And that mother and child were among thousands.

By Thursday, the White House press corps pounded press secretary Scott McClellan to explain why the federal response to the dire hardships of hundreds of thousands of Americans came late and appeared poorly planned. McClellan disputed such assertions.

For U.S. presidents, there is an unwritten rule book for disaster recovery, and the first rule is, "Act fast." The second rule is, "Send it all," because local and state officials are often reluctant to admit they need help. And the third rule is that presidents are expected to "explain and console." President Clinton and his FEMA director, James Lee Witt, were acknowledged masters. It was George H.W. Bush, with Hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and Andrew in 1992, who provided painful lessons about the feds' bureaucratic intransigence and deference to local officials.

"President Clinton learned what happened and never let it happen again," recalled Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to Presidents Bush and Reagan. "And the good part is that they learned it for all time and for all the presidents."

The senior President Bush was not callous to disasters: A severe storm in 1991 gutted his family home in Maine, and the Atlantic swallowed its contents. But he failed to anticipate that his administration was part of the problem. FEMA had been criticized for a sluggish response after Hugo, which struck the Carolinas and claimed 86 lives. By the time Andrew destroyed more than 100,000 Florida homes two months before the 1992 election, the vulnerabilities of FEMA (which at the time required governors to first request aid) conspired with the shortsightedness of Florida's Gov. Lawton Chiles (who initially refused to make the request) to give Bush a black eye.

Fitzwater said that Clinton rightly went to school on Bush's mistakes. "He, as president, could not afford to wait on governors to develop the response and to make the requests," Fitzwater said. "If you waited a day or two or three, you were too late. You have to get on the ground immediately -- and not with checks, but with tents and with food and water."

To deliver resources through heftier departments such as Defense, FEMA must seize the president's attention before disasters happen, said Jane Bullock, who worked at FEMA under five presidents before becoming Witt's chief of staff. Clinton -- who experienced natural calamities during a dozen years as governor of a small, poor state -- "recognized that people expected their government to be there in a disaster," she said.

When government help proves a balm for victims, it can also be a balm for presidents. With his poll numbers at their lowest ebb, the current President Bush has been playing defense. "Every time we had a disaster, President Clinton's poll numbers went up," Bullock added. "They gave him a venue where he was at his best."