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Katrina lessons in Bush response to fires

/ Source: The Associated Press

Hurricane Katrina has many legacies for the Bush White House, none pleasant. One is the guarantee that as soon as disaster strikes in the United States, President Bush's every move is closely scrutinized to gauge the speed and tone of his response.

This became clear again as the enormity of the wildfires sweeping across Southern California since Sunday dawned on the nation.

The White House sprang into action Tuesday with what has become a familiar quick-response pattern: Bush dropped lines of sympathy and promised assistance into an already scheduled speech. Across the administration, aides volunteered facts and figures about the federal contribution to the disaster response, a federal emergency to speed relief funding was declared in the middle of the night, and a presidential visit to the affected area was quickly arranged. The president added a broader major disaster declaration on Wednesday and convened a special Cabinet meeting.

The White House's handling of Katrina in the days before it hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in late August 2005 seemed set to follow this model. Bush and his aides issued repeated warnings to worried locals, conferred with officials in the region and promised Washington would do all it could to help.

But once the massive storm blew ashore, smashing Mississippi's coastal communities to sticks and submerging New Orleans in water, the federal response turned dismal — slow and uncaring.

This was a departure.

Most notably, Bush endeared himself to the nation with his bullish but comforting stance after the 2001 terrorist attacks. He also was praised for his reaction when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing its seven-member crew. He was omnipresent in Florida when that state was hit by four hurricanes in 2004.

But all that was wiped out by Katrina, and the White House has struggled at times since to regain its footing.

Other recent disasters
After a devastating tornado in Greensburg, Kan., in May, the administration had to backtrack after initially appearing to blame the state's Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, for not asking quickly enough for help from the federal government.

In August, Bush also reacted quickly to a deadly bridge collapse in Minnesota by scheduling a visit. But this followed an unseemly early emphasis from the White House on how fixing structural deficiencies is the state's responsibility.

This week brought a disaster more along the massive Katrina scale. On Tuesday, with the California blazes already affecting a quarter-million acres and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, the White House made sure to present a picture of a heavily engaged administration.

White House press secretary Dana Perino came to her daily briefing armed with slides detailing Washington's contribution so far. It included 32 firefighting crews and dozens of fire engines from the Agriculture Department, 25,000 cots and 280,000 bottles of water.

"We send the help of the federal government," Bush declared during a speech otherwise devoted to the war on terror.

After the Cabinet meeting Wednesday morning, at which Bush and about two dozen officials heard a briefing on relief efforts, the president emphasized his constant contact with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He offered more assurances, with a subtle caveat that local officials must tell Washington what they need. A criticism after Katrina was that Washington didn't jump in to provide help without being asked by overwhelmed local authorities.

"I believe the effort is well-coordinated. I know we're getting the manpower and assets on the ground that have been requested by the state and local governments," Bush said.

In an interview, Perino said that both Katrina and today's speedy news cycles have made White House officials aware they must get the word out quickly for it to count. Before, conversations about supply lines and local needs would happen only quietly, or a presidential trip wouldn't be announced before it was completely arranged.

Now, she said these things are publicized as soon as possible.

"We're conscious of talking faster," Perino said. "We need to keep up. If you don't, people might accuse you of not doing what you should be doing."

Bush also has scotched plans to travel to St. Louis Thursday, laying on a trip to California instead to inspect the response for himself. This in spite of the continuing crisis, and Perino's statement earlier that discussing such travel was premature and perhaps inappropriate precisely because of that.

To be sure, the public relations piece of handling a tragedy is tricky. Overkill brings accusations of interference or crass political opportunism. Too little attention, or waiting too long to visit, raises doubts about compassion.

"I've got some doubt about the value of President Bush coming out here. How many times did he go to New York or to New Orleans and still, made promises but hasn't delivered?" California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi said on MSNBC.

Of course, the most important piece of disaster response isn't slideshows and presidential words of comfort. It's getting food, medical care, shelter and recovery teams to the area, not to mention staying committed during months (or years) or rebuilding.

To this end, Pentagon officials said Katrina taught them to be more forward-leaning. The military has already sent resources to California, but also is trying to predict what requests might materialize in the coming days. For instance, a battalion of Marines — some 550 people — is training for firefighting duties.

"One of the lessons that we, as a nation, learned is that in a crisis, you don't wait to be asked; you lean forward, you prepare your capabilities and you ask, very pointedly, 'How can I help?'," said Paul McHale, assistant defense secretary for homeland defense. "And that's a different mindset. It's a sense of urgency."