Bush has learnt to ride the storm

It is early to be getting partisan about New Orleans. We are still too close to the awfulness of the hurricane: as I write the death toll from the waters is approaching 200. The US is absorbing the news of the annihilation of an entire American city. Still, the big political question about Hurricane Katrina is already being posed by the bloggers: is President George W. Bush's foreign policy affecting the federal government's response to New Orleans? Did America react differently to Katrina because it was thinking about Iraq?

The answer of course is yes. In some ways, foreign commitments are limiting the US's ability to respond. Instead of buttressing the levees or arresting looters today, the 5,000 troops from the Louisiana national guard are parked at Camp Liberty outside Baghdad, watching the video clips of the crowds at the Superdome just like the rest of us. Mississippi guardsmen are also in Iraq, attached to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. In the national mind, Katrina, Iraq, and the potential for a terror strike are all competing for attention.

Still, Iraq has not caused the US to botch Katrina - either the preparation or response. On the contrary, the fact that the country and President Bush personally were already mobilised for disaster has saved lives.

Go back, for just a moment, to the 2000 elections. A debate moderator asked Mr Bush, the presidential candidate, what he would do when confronted with an emergency. Mr Bush - then Texas governor - gave a reply about a flood in Del Rio, Texas, that now seems touching both for its emotion and the small scale on which he was thinking: "A fellow and his family got completely uprooted. The only thing I knew was to get aid as quickly as possible with state and federal help, and to put my arms around the man and his family and cry with them. That's what governors do." And that was just about as far as Mr Bush's thoughts went. After all, among Mr Bush's advisers were federalists who deplored the concept of expanding Washington's power. They recognised that weather emergencies, like wars, often provide the excuse for just such expansion. Faced with a Katrina in the summer of 2001, the president, thinking as a federalist, might have been slower to call for Washington's intervention. He might have said: this is a job for Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana. With a little help from Washington. And that, alas, probably would not have been sufficient.

September 11 changed Mr Bush and the country. Many of Mr Bush's critics remarked that he looked like a deer in the headlights in that moment at the primary school when aides first whispered to him the news of the aircraft hijackings. But Mr Bush grew into a new role of leader in emergencies, and so did the federal government. In addition to its old Federal Emergency Management Agency, it created the Office of Homeland Security to co-ordinate local, state and federal responses.

The level of preparedness for a giant storm may not have been obvious outside the country. But the US was prepared for Katrina. All the old and new federal offices worked together and confronted the storm early. Nearly two days before Katrina hit New Orleans, the president made millions available to Louisiana by declaring the state an official disaster area. In a press conference on Sunday morning, he instructed the country to listen for any alerts - and warned straightforwardly that he could not "stress enough the danger this hurricane poses to Gulf coast communities". On Sunday too, Alabama and Mississippi received access to cash when they in turn were declared disaster areas. Citizens of New Orleans with special needs were instructed to go to the Superdome. Sunday also brought a mandatory evacuation order from the mayor of New Orleans. The hurricane made landfall only on Monday morning. And so on, in military fashion. As for troops, 30,000 will be in the south soon - hardly a shortage.

What of the future, when the waters recede? Katrina is likely to change the US, and lead Washington to spend more to protect against certain eventualities: another California earthquake; worse forest fires than those of 2000. But the odds of another natural disaster on a Katrina scale are still less than the odds of a terrorist poisoning of a water source or, heaven forfend, a dirty bomb at an airport. And those terror odds are currently increasing - after all, terrorists see chaos as opportunity. Most Americans know all this and are trying to rise to the special challenges this year has brought. To introduce politics at such a point would be not only wrong but low.

© Copyright 2005 Financial Times

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