Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  He regularly offers MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC:  Tim, President George W. Bush took lots of heat for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, but it appears the White House doesn’t want that to happen again.  The pre-response to Hurricane Rita has been quite different than what we saw for Katrina.  Why do you think that is?

TimRussert:  I think the response we’re seeing is in direct recognition of what went wrong with Katrina -- the pre-positioning of troops and supplies in San Antonio and a much larger role for the U.S. military.  It is an acknowledgement that the federal, state and local governments just didn’t protect the people adequately during Katrina.

MSNBC:  So, prior to Hurricane Rita, why is President Bush heading to Texas and then to Colorado, to the Northern Command, to sort of ride out the storm?

Russert:  Well, the lessons from Katrina have been learned, they hope, from when they first said that nothing had gone wrong.  The behavior now is totally different than what we had for Katrina.  Its very much hands on, with much deeper federal involvement, pre-positioning of troops and supplies in San Antonio, to get help to people in Houston and Galveston. 

The president is going first to Texas and then to Colorado, to oversee the military response.  Then, Saturday, I believe, he’s back to Texas.  It’s just a full scale operation, recognizing that we can not have another repeat of Katrina.

MSNBC:  Does the president being in Colorado actually give him more hands on control of this.  It’s appearance, isn’t it?

Russert:  Yeah, sure.  It’s the imagery that’s important to them.  They will say that he wants to be in a place where he can actually watch what the military is doing and what the command and control looks like, because that’s been lacking in Katrina.

Four years after September 11th, we have not been able to effectively put a command and control structure in place, so when something is going wrong in a nursing home, we can get people help. 

And we need much better communications.  We had the head of the Federal communications commission say Thursday that first responders on the ground still can’t talk to each other. That’s what we went through on September 11th.  Those are things that can be fixed and they have to be fixed if government at the federal state and local level is going to protect its people.

MSNBC:  Local authorities are also responding differently.  The state has sent in buses, they’ve got airlifts going and they’ve reversed some of the lanes on the highways, ultimately, to try to move traffic along.

Russert:  Absolutely.  New Orleans had all those buses that were just up to their windows in water, with the mayor saying he didn’t have any bus drivers.  There was no real evacuation plan.  In fact, local officials in Louisiana recorded a public service announcement in July saying, basically, if a storm hits, you’re on your own.

We see a far different situation in Galveston and Houston.  And let’s hope the highways are cleared and people are secure.  The real concern, obviously, is also New Orleans.  If it gets 5-6 inches of rain, we could have a repeat of the flooding.

MSNBC:  Four years after 9/11, most would likely think America would have much greater, improved, capacity to deal with what we’ve seen in New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama and now in Texas.  But now there are serious concerns about what we’ve been doing along those lines over the past four years.

Russert:  You can read in the paper how the chairman of the federal communications commission said Thursday that we really ought to have satellite phones around the country so that our first responders can talk to one another.  Can you imagine that hasn’t happened four years after September 11th?

What we learned here, in the Washington area, was police at the Pentagon, in Virginia, couldn’t talk to the police in the District of Columbia.   The same situation existed at the World Trade Center, when the heroes were going up the steps and they couldn’t talk to the commanders on the ground.  And we haven’t fixed it!

Four years later, we don’t have fundamental, basic communication in case of a catastrophe.  We just have to do better.

MSNBC:  We hear things like “We’re doing so much better,” “We’ve learned so much,” and, every time some smaller incident happens, “It’s a learning experience.” Yet, it seems nothing much seems to be accomplished.

Russert:  One of the things we’ve learned from Katrina is you really need some strong command and control  I think there’s going to be a real recognition that it’s probably going to take an increased national role – perhaps the military.  And it’s going to take a person to crack the whip – a czar if it’s not going to be the president - who’s going to say, “We’re going to buy communication equipment for all our first responders around the country, that can be put on a uniform channel, so we can talk to each other when things start going down.”

That’s the most important thing, being able to get information.  So, if a nursing home is taking water and people are drowning, they can talk to somebody and help them get there.  Command and control and communications – there’s just no substitute for them.

MSNBC:  What can we look forward to on Meet the Press Sunday?

Russert:  This is it - the eye of the storm.  We’re going to have the very latest, obviously, up to the minute from the National Hurricane Center.  We’ll talk to representatives from Texas, and Louisiana and the affected areas.

Then we’re going to turn to politics:  the deficit, Supreme Court and Iraq, with the “Murderers’ Row” of the New York Times – Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd and David Brooks – they all write for the Times.  You have to pay for them online; you’ll see them free, Sunday, on Meet the Press.


Discussion comments