St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Hurricane Katrina

Lessons his father didn't share

The handling of Katrina's aftermath is giving a black eye to the administration - the kind Andrew gave another President Bush.

Published September 8, 2005

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Multimedia: Continuing fallout
Latest Times photos
Storm Watch blog

WASHINGTON - President Bush has worked hard to avoid the mistakes of his father.

He took a firm stand against tax hikes, in contrast to his dad's famous flip-flop. He paid attention to the Republican Party's conservative base, a group his father neglected.

He was careful to avoid his dad's mistakes during last year's re-election campaign. His aides analyzed memos and organizational charts from the 1992 Bush-Quayle campaign, which was hobbled by weak leadership and infighting. They set up Bush-Cheney 2004 with a clear command structure and a sharp focus.

But in responding to Hurricane Katrina, Bush seems to have forgotten the lessons of Hurricane Andrew, the South Florida storm that was a black eye for his father.

Government at all levels failed after the 1992 hurricane.

Counties and cities were overwhelmed. The state was unprepared and the federal government was slow to help. The situation got so dire a few days after the storm that Kate Hale, Dade County's director of emergency management, cried, "We're doing everything we can! Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?"

The first President Bush eventually sent the cavalry, but it was clear the federal government needed to improve its disaster response. So when Bill Clinton took office a few months later, he appointed James Lee Witt, a seasoned pro at disaster response, to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Witt did such a good job overhauling FEMA that by the 2000 campaign, then-candidate Bush had high praise.

"I have to pay the administration a compliment," Bush said during a debate with Vice President Gore. "James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis."

Bush's first FEMA director was Joe Allbaugh, a take-charge former campaign manager who was close to the president.

But after Allbaugh departed, the mild-mannered Michael Brown moved into the job and FEMA was gobbled up in the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security. Unlike Witt, who was a member of President Clinton's Cabinet, Brown was not.

Witt's staffers at FEMA had lots of experience in emergency management, but many of them departed once Bush was elected. Despite the exodus, the Bush administration earned generally good marks for its response to the Florida hurricanes last year.

Then came Katrina, which brought a refrain from 1992: The government was slow and unprepared. "The initial response from federal officials leaves the impression that they can't walk and chew gum at the same time," said Chuck Todd, editor of the political Web site Hotline.

Some Republicans say state and local officials in Louisiana and Mississippi were slow to ask for help. (The same allegations were made after Andrew.)

But regardless of how much blame they might deserve, it's clear the Bush administration was caught flat-footed for Katrina, despite the lessons of Andrew.

In his visit to the Gulf Coast last week, Bush looked tentative. He made matters worse by talking about the damage to the waterfront home of Sen. Trent Lott, a wealthy Republican who wasn't suffering as much as the people of New Orleans.

Bush also made a misstep when he praised Brown. "Brownie," he said, "you're doing a heck of a job."

The lessons of Andrew were that the feds should communicate better with the states, that the federal government should be ready to move in swiftly with plenty of resources after a storm and that bureaucracy should not hamper the recovery.

But those lessons seem to be forgotten.

Todd says FEMA performed better during the Florida hurricanes last year. "It makes you wonder," Todd said.

"Does FEMA only work in an election year? Or only when the president's brother is governor?"

Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or

[Last modified September 8, 2005, 01:50:14]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters