A former top official from the George W. Bush White House and I play a game via email. The slug of each message is always — "Imagine If Bush Had " followed by some egregious act by President Obama.
The latest email was, of course, about Hurricane Sandy. Imagine if former President Bush had popped into a hurricane-ravaged region, walked around with a few federal officials for an hour, hugged distraught and sobbing women, then headed off to Las Vegas, bounding off Air Force One with a huge smile, waving to adoring fans?
Imagine if the bashed and thrashed 43rd president had popped over to FEMA for a 30-minute photo op, then jetted off for yet another campaign rally with Hollywood celebs?
Before we go on, let's set the record straight about Hurricane Katrina. On Aug. 29, 2005, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order for the city — hours after the storm had become a Category 5 and just 19 hours before it made landfall. More than 60,000 residents ignored the order — or couldn't get out in time. The mayor then failed to deploy thousands of buses that could have ferried out 12,000 people per fleet run. He didn't even move the buses themselves to higher ground — a day later, they were window-high in water, useless.
For at least three days, both the mayor and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco repeatedly told the White House they had the situation under control — until they suddenly turned and blamed the federal government for everything.
City and state officials had an emergency plan but failed to implement it. In fact, 13 months before the hurricane, local, state and federal officials had conducted an elaborate drill with the assumption that 300,000 had failed to evacuate for just such a catastrophic storm. But after Katrina struck, instead of evacuating the people who wouldn't or couldn't get out, officials sent them to the damaged Superdome, where there was little food and water. More than 30,000 descended on the stadium. City officials thought the state was handling supplies; state officials thought the city was in control. Chaos ensued.
Primary response is — and has always been — the responsibility of local officials. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is not the first responder, and in fact can only go in when a state's governor requests such aid — a move the governor called for way too late. And that infamous picture of the cold-hearted president flying over the destruction in New Orleans? He cut short his travels and, returning to the White House, didn't want to swoop in for a photo op, demanding precious resources — just as Mr. Obama did last week, with no complaints by the compliant media.
"This continues to be my number one priority," the president said at his FEMA photo-op Saturday before skipping back off to the campaign trail. Lest any reporter think the federal response was ever not Mr. Obama's No. 1 priority, a campaign flack aboard Air Force One said, "He's focused on it every minute he's not on the stage."
Play the game one more time: "Imagine if Bush had said that?"
Mr. Obama and his top aides flustered and blustered and bloviated over their superior pre-storm planning. The president vowed that nothing — nothing — would stop him from saving New York and New Jersey from the vicious storm. He pledged to be on the case around the clock, come hell or high water. And then he blew out of town, headed to Vegas.
The storm hit one week ago. What is the status of the states hardest hit? Dire. There are still 2.5 million without power, and temperatures have dipped into the 20s (another powerful storm is blowing up the coast and expected to hit the region by midweek). Bodies are still being recovered in Staten Island. Chaos reigns in the streets of the outer boroughs. Residents have taken up arms — baseball bats, machetes, shotguns — as crime and looting soar. Handmade signs popped up: "Looters Will Be Shot" and "Block Protected By Smith & Wesson."
"It's like the Wild West, a borderline lawless situation," said one resident as he stockpiled knives, a machete and a bow and arrow.
Just a day after the storm, frightened citizens queued up for hours in lines to buy gas: Five days later, when the federal government announced free gas (well, free for storm victims; U.S. taxpayers foot the bill), thousands flooded the handout sites. Armed police battled some who cut lines as frustration ran high. At one site for free gas, the line was 16 hours long.
Six days after the storm, officials distributed dry ice (uh, a refrigerator's contents spoils in about six hours without power). FEMA ran out of potable water to hand out to the trapped and powerless Saturday — the agency hadn't ordered more until late Friday, so new shipments aren't expected until Monday at the earliest.
By Sunday, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg felt safe enough to hit the streets. "When are we gonna get some f---ing help?" one woman asked bluntly. And more federal officials were on their way: Department of Homeland Security Chief Janet A. Napolitano strolled the hardest-hit areas, again with egoist Chris Christie.
Nowhere, so far at least, are the obvious questions: Why didn't FEMA set up gas reserves well in advance? The storm was on the radar screen for more than a week, and a direct hit was never in doubt. How about food, water, even generators? All could have been positioned nearby and moved in quickly after Sandy hit. And a week later, the stranded are still asking: Why is it taking so long?
In the Rockaways, brutalized by the storm, residents are getting desperate. "Politicians are just driving by in their nice cars. Why don't they come speak to us and tell us what we need to do?" Kathy Gambino said to the New York Post.
Shaun L.S. Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, did a photo-op in the Rockaways on Sunday morning. Asked about the lack of help, he said: "The Rockaways are absolutely not forgotten. This morning at 8 a.m. I was with the president, the entire Cabinet. We were talking about the Rockaways."
Talking? Imagine if Bush had ?
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.