by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Beyond all the natural devastation, Katrina is perhaps best remembered as a politically devastating event, in particular for the Bush presidency. In his own memoir, George W. Bush wrote that, “The legacy of fall 2005 lingered for the rest of my time in office.” Indeed, one could argue the popular perception of Bush’s failed response to the tragedy lingers to this day.
Katrina, in its power and ferocity, is the single greatest reminder of the limitations of government. State and local reactions were abysmal. The delays in evacuating the city were extremely costly. Officials lacked the means to communicate with one another in emergencies, and basic tasks typically assigned to state and local officials were left to federal responders. To make matters worse, both Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin – later sentenced to ten years in prison for accepting bribes from city contractors – were clearly out of their depth.
The basic failures at the state and local level during Katrina and its aftermath placed a heavier burden on the federal government. Federal officials evacuated hundreds of thousands of residents, but it was not nearly enough. The decision to allow federal troops was late in coming, and once citizens were whisked to safer ground, the logistical support and basic humanitarian comforts they needed were glaringly lacking.
Was anything learned? Today, over a decade later, we are seeing a much more resilient Louisiana react to recent flooding that has killed at least 13 people and displaced tens of thousands from their homes. To be sure, President Obama has declared disaster zones, freeing up federal-response money for people in the affected area. And, when done with his vacation, he did visit the area. The visit also took place only after Donald Trump seized the limelight by visiting first, garnering rare positive media attention for the GOP nominee.
But the federal response is not the focus of attention in the current crisis, because state and local leaders appear to have learned some important lessons over the course of the last decade. Republican representative Garret Graves has praised local communities who are “filling the void” in their response to the flood. Federal action, he noted, is only a “complement [to] some of the efforts our community is doing, our local and state governments.”