Katrina's Aftermath Could Bring Political Storms

Sept. 1, 2005 — -- Neighborhoods remain underwater after Hurricane Katrina. Gunfire menaces New Orleans. Victims wait to be rescued. Unknown thousands may be dead or dying.

That's why, for now, prominent Republicans and Democrats -- including President Bush, Louisiana's Democratic governor, New Orleans' Democratic mayor and the state's bipartisan U.S. Senate delegation -- are on emergency footing and working toward a common cause.

"I hope people don't … play politics during this period of time," President Bush said Thursday on "Good Morning America."

"This is a natural disaster, the likes of which our country may have never seen before, and it's a national emergency. What we need to do as a nation is come together to solve the problem and not play politics."

Still, he added, "There'll be ample time for politics."

Ultimately, government responses to natural disasters and other catastrophic events have proven to be political.

For instance, some blame President George H.W. Bush's response to Hurricane Andrew in Florida for his subsequent loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. And the current President Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani saw their popularity soar following their leadership after the 9/11 attacks.

Bush already has made comparisons to 9/11.

"New Orleans is more devastated than New York was, and just physically devastated," Bush told Diane Sawyer on "GMA."

'National Disgrace'

Observers agree it may be too soon to determine Katrina's ultimate political winners and losers. But as the anger of local residents and officials over the federal response coalesced Thursday afternoon, one analyst suggested a political hornets' nest over Katrina may be closer than other experts initially expected.

"The people are angry that they're displaced," said Pearson Cross, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "People are angry that they had to wait in line, that they couldn't get gas, that they had to leave home, that their things are ruined. … That anger is ultimately going to turn into campaign issues."

Anger and frustration continue to boil. Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans' emergency operations, complained that federal efforts in the city, particularly among displaced persons at the Louisiana Superdome, amounted to "a national disgrace."

"FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control," Ebbert said, according to The Associated Press. "We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans."

The displacement of citizens could rearrange Louisiana's demographics, Cross said. Local anger could topple incumbents. The disaster may even jolt national politics, he added.

"It's kind of a clarion call to reorganize priorities for the United States, suggesting that the United States' mission at home is far from over," Cross said. "I wouldn't be surprised if candidates said, 'Look, we're running around the world trying to solve problems when we have problems at home that are just as urgent.' "

'Comforter in Chief'

Initially, as with 9/11, analysts said Wednesday and Thursday, Americans might turn to Bush, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and other leaders for comfort.

"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."

'Nobody Sending Any Help'

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."

Bush Impact

Such early impressions may be reversible, as aid efforts intensify and Bush plans to visit the region Friday.

"I think the pictures of him over the weekend in the devastated South [and] the sort of statements he will issue will have some sort of immediate political gain," Hess said. "He's doing one of the things that presidents do, which is be a sympathizer, caring for the afflicted."

John Maginnis, a syndicated columnist on Louisiana politics, said Bush's initial speeches were received well.

"The people needed to see that -- that President Bush and the rest of the country saw this as an outside disaster and there's going to be a response," he said.

Another possible benefit for Bush, if he handles the hurricane well: In the short term, wall-to-wall coverage of the hurricane story may distract people from Bush's other problems, like Iraq, Hess said.

"Then, it will become obvious, as it always does in these things, that government can only do so much, can only move so fast," Hess said of the hurricane relief effort. "The downside probably, in the long run, exceeds the upside."

Local Backlash?

If there's a similar downside for local officials, it might hit Democrats hard.

"New Orleans is the bluest area of the red state," Maginnis said. "If you had an election tomorrow, you wouldn't have many people even able to vote in New Orleans."

Democratic New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was an overwhelming favorite in a February election, Maginiss said. Blanco would face re-election in the fall of 2007, and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in the fall of 2008.

"I think state officials will also incur some fallout after the rally-around-the-flag effect dissipates," Cross said. "That fallout will center around their lack of preparation for a disaster like this. Though no one can be expected to prepare adequately for a disaster like this, it did happen on their watch."

Cross added that movement of people out of New Orleans may distort demographics in the state's politically gerrymandered election districts, potentially jeopardizing incumbent congressmen and state legislators used to coasting to re-election.

"I would say that this incident has the power to speed the process of Louisiana becoming Republican," Cross added, "particularly if Republican office holders like Sen. [David] Vitter [and] President Bush respond positively to the crisis."

Faith-Based Help?

On the other hand, Harvard's King said the disaster may prove to be so vast that it could test what he sees as the region's disdain for federal and state government assistance.

"This is absolutely the belt buckle of the Bible Belt," he said. "It's right there, where there's an expectation that people will pull themselves up by the bootstraps and where their churches, not the government, will come to their assistance. That will be severely tested because a lot of the churches have been swept away."

But Ron Rychlak, a professor and associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law in Oxford, Miss., was skeptical that the region would have any qualms about accepting federal help after such a disaster, and similarly skeptical of King's theory that locals would be unable to help.

"There's [displaced] folks living in property next door to me; there's all kinds of individual efforts that are going on," Rychlak said. "If there's a regional difference, I think the difference is that no one expects the people in Washington to be able to wave a magic wand and fix things. … We'll have to roll up our sleeves and help ourselves."