"This may be America's Atlantis, and it's not clear that New Orleans will rise again," said David King, a professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Because of that, we're going to need a comforter in chief as well as a commander in chief."
How Katrina ultimately plays politically for local, regional and national leaders and their parties is an open question.
That's because the impact largely will depend upon the outcome of a massive response that is still playing out. Also, in a crisis situation, it may be too soon for strenuous second-guessing over the region's preparedness for Katrina.
"Politicians who did that [partisan political sniping] would be seen as worse than ambulance chasers," King said Wednesday. "If you have politicians handing out political treatises in this type of environment, it will come back to haunt them."
Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said Thursday morning that a handful of the initial critics who lashed out at Bush over a perceived slow initial response may have fallen into such a trap.
Hess cited Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who told The Washington Post for Thursday's editions: "He [Bush] has to get off his mountain bike and back to work," referring to Bush's regular leisure activity at his vacation home in Crawford, Texas, where the president was staying when the hurricane struck.
"What a cheap shot," Hess said. "That's the sort of thing that is very foolish politically. There will be a time to assess the president's efforts and to judge them successful or wanting."
But already, there have been questions about the National Guard being heavily deployed in Iraq when there's looting and gunfire in New Orleans, or who's to blame for possibly inadequate flood control preparations in New Orleans, or about a perceived congressional failure to provide adequate funding to combat coastal erosion and floods.
Locals hope such questions will lead to constructive outcomes.
"People are finally going to see that flood control in Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi affects not just Louisiana, but the rest of the nation," said T. Wayne Parent, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University.
"I hope the issue of coastal wetlands loss in Louisiana becomes more prominent nationally," added Kirby Goidel, associate professor of mass communications and political science at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "Louisiana has been losing a lot of those coastal barrier islands that protect New Orleans."
However, on the ground in Slidell, La., on Wednesday, the complaints were more immediate and angry. Residents responded with frustration to Bush's Washington-bound flight overhead.
"Who are all these politicians ... flying over in airplanes and helicopters?" one man asked ABC News Radio. "There ain't nobody sending any help."
"They talk about flying around in New Orleans looking and everything," another man said. "We haven't heard nothing from the North Shore. Fly over here."
Such early impressions may be reversible, as aid efforts intensify and Bush plans to visit the region Friday.