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Haiti in crisis, Obama heeds lessons of Katrina

This is what President Barack Obama wants people to think about the U.S. reaction to the catastrophe in Haiti: "swift, coordinated and aggressive."
Image: Obama Hosts Town Hall Meeting In New Orleans
Obama visited the Gulf Coast on October 15, 2009 to talk about the administration's recovery efforts.Chris Graythen / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

This is what President Barack Obama wants people to think about the U.S. reaction to the catastrophe in Haiti: It will not be another Hurricane Katrina.

Obama has repeatedly promised a "swift, coordinated and aggressive" response. He is determined to show that the United States, even consumed with its own troubles, can get this right, and that he can, too.

The world is watching because of the expectations that come with being a rich, powerful democracy that is supposed to look out for its neighbors.

And because the stain of Katrina is not gone.

"This is one of those moments that calls out for American leadership," said Obama, who can add a humanitarian crisis to his first-year tests in office.

There are huge contrasts between Katrina, the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history, and the sorrowful scene unfolding in Haiti. One was a hurricane on U.S. soil that killed 1,800 people across the coast of the Gulf of Mexico; the other was an earthquake hundreds of miles (kilometers) away that may have killed 50,000 people.

Yet as the wrenching images come in of people clinging to wreckage, of bodies piling up on the street, the comparisons are inevitable.

The botched federal response to Katrina in 2005 became the standard by which emergency responses are measured, and presidents are held accountable.

"The United States is seen in the world as the first responder to this kind of humanitarian crisis, and it has echoes — inappropriate echoes, to be sure — of Hurricane Katrina," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "Can we get there fast enough? There's a risk there for the president."

Obama has responded with urgency, and the White House has tried to make sure that people know it.

The president has dispatched ships, soldiers, Marines and loads of other assets to the reeling Caribbean nation. He has pledged $100 million for relief efforts now and promised that that number will grow. He has positioned the United States as a coalition-building leader — the United Nations itself has been rocked by the collapse of its headquarters in Haiti. He has pleaded for donations from his old campaign list of supporters, more than 13 million strong.

And he told his team: "I will not put up with any excuses" for an inadequate response, another allusion to past government failures. A senior White House official, national security staff chief Denis McDonough, arrived in Haiti to help make sure U.S. agencies were coordinating as promised.

What the White House is not ready to do is trumpet any results — not yet. Another lesson learned fro Katrina.

When Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked whether Obama was pleased with the pace of the U.S. response so far, he said: "He is, but ..."

Gibbs followed by telling reporters that Obama had sternly told his team in the White House Situation Room that they must work day and night to get help fast into Haiti.

The human cost of disasters is the toll that matters. But the political one cannot be ignored.

"Presidents have a very limited time to prove their effectiveness in managing a crisis," said Light, who praised Obama for the way he has spelled out the U.S. response and rallied his own country to help. Still, Light added: "The clock is ticking."

George W. Bush paid a huge price when America watched, in horror, as New Orleans was drowning and governments at all levels were slow to respond.

Now Obama has tasked Bush, along with fellow former President Bill Clinton, to lead the private fundraising efforts to help Haiti and its people recover. The three of them will meet at the White House on Saturday.

Never mind that Obama blasted Bush's government for "unconscionable ineptitude" after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Time for some common humanity, as Obama put it.

"We will do what it takes to save lives," Obama declared Friday to the people of Haiti in what has become a daily update on the crisis.

The balance for the president is to not be seen as heavy-handed or as the world's problem-solver. He has emphasized that his chief priority is Americans, from getting injured U.S. citizens airlifted out of Haiti to helping Haitian-Americans try to get answers about their families.

Yet Obama says a robust response to another nation in need is also an American imperative.