New Orleans Forsaken
Katrina revealed the need to examine the relationship between the private and the public and the responsibilities of the individual to the collective. It exposed the legacy of segregation, the prevalence of class inequality and the necessity of government. It is a mark of the country's dysfunctional political culture that just ten months earlier, none of the key issues raised by Katrina had featured in a hotly contested presidential election in which the nation's future was reputedly at stake.
Nonetheless, the hurricane represented a crucial political moment. With no foreign enemy to deflect attention from his shortcomings--for all her faults, and there were many, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was no Osama bin Laden--the spotlight was on Bush. And people didn't like what they saw. Katrina became a signifier for an Administration that was heartless and clueless. The poor of New Orleans were left to sink or swim in no small part because the MBA President was out of his depth.
Neither the hurricane nor its likely effects were a surprise. In 2001 a Federal Emergency Management Agency report ranked a major hurricane striking New Orleans as one of the three most likely potential disasters--after a terrorist attack on New York City and an earthquake in San Francisco. Like the infamous presidential daily briefing of August 6, 2001, titled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US," Bush failed to heed the warnings and then pretended he had never even heard them. Moreover, unlike September 11, with Katrina he knew the approximate time and place disaster would strike. Not for the first time, he was missing in action. And while the Gulf Coast lay in ruins, he remained in Southern California trying to sell the Gulf War.
Bush's ability to export freedom to the Middle East was brought into question by his inability to deliver food to Middle America. For the first time in his presidency, a narrow majority of people did not believe Bush was a strong and decisive leader. His approval ratings sank below 40 percent, and they have barely recovered.
This moment showed potential to raise the level of political discourse beyond flag, faith, soundbite and photo op. For a few weeks, issues of race, class privilege and poverty, which were once rarely discussed beyond the margins, became mainstream. With no government with which to be embedded, even the lame media learned to walk the walk again. Their powers of inquiry and capacity for indignation were reborn. Cameras that remained shuttered as coffins returned home from Iraq tracked bodies floating down Canal Street. Just a few weeks after the hurricane, Newsweek ran a cover story titled "Poverty, Race and Katrina," as though the magazine had only just discovered it.
But with a few notable exceptions, the media soon left town and would not return in substantial numbers until Mardi Gras. Without any viable political expression to sustain it, the well of human compassion ran dry. The anger was there, but with no movement to harness it or ideology to advance it, the fury burned bright but fizzled quickly.
Clearly feeling the pressure, Bush delivered a prime-time speech from New Orleans's Jackson Square just over two weeks after Katrina struck. "All of us saw on television, there's...some deep, persistent poverty in this region," he said. "That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action." But as the pressure waned, so did his interest in the issue. Over the next ten months Bush would mention domestic poverty only six times. "Does he often talk about poverty? No," his press secretary, Tony Snow, told the Washington Post. "He is focused on eliminating the barriers that stand in the way of people making progress."