Hurricane Katrina vs. Hurricane Ida: Two storms, two presidents and two very different responses

President Joe Biden is briefed by FEMA officials on the danger of Hurricane Ida. (Photo: White House)

Sept. 3, 2021 by David Silverberg

Hurricane Ida shrieked onto the Louisiana coast on Sunday, Aug. 29, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made a similar landfall in 2005.

Many observers have made comparisons between the two hurricanes. Both were monster storms that wreaked terrible destruction and damage. Both resulted in extensive human suffering. Both afflicted multiple states.

However, to date there’s been little comparison of the responses to the two hurricanes by the sitting presidents and their administrations.

Hurricane Katrina struck during the presidency of George W. Bush. Hurricane Ida arrived during the presidency of Joe Biden.

As similar as the storms may be, the responses could not be more different.

“Katrina conjures impressions of disorder, incompetence, and the sense that government let down its citizens,” Bush himself wrote in his 2010 memoir, Decision Points.

In contrast, to date Biden has shown himself engaged, focused and effective. His administration was on alert and moved into action immediately.

Southwest Floridians in particular should take note of all this. The region has been lucky so far this year in avoiding hurricanes and damaging storms but the season is by no means over. Some Floridians, their elected officials and their governor instinctively disparage the federal government and attack this president. But if a storm comes that flattens the Paradise Coast the way Hurricane Ida flattened the homes of Louisiana, they will be able to look to a federal government and a president that is ready, willing and able to help them—so unlike the situation in 2005.

It’s worth comparing key aspects of the two events to see how far we have come.

Run-up to the storm

In 2005 the Bush administration was certainly aware of the oncoming storm. However, Bush was on a month-long vacation at his ranch at Crawford, Texas. On the day Katrina made landfall he traveled to Arizona for a brief, airport tarmac greeting with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a town hall meeting at a resort and country club in El Mirage. He was promoting legislative changes to the Medicare program. He then went to California where he spoke before a crowd of military personnel at the Coronado naval base. Then he returned to Air Force One and flew back to his ranch.

In looking back in his 2008 memoir What Happened, Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary, was critical of the administration’s distant, almost lackadaisical approach: “The problem lay in our mind-set,” he recalled.

“Our White House team had already weathered many disasters, from the hurricanes of the previous year all the way back to the unprecedented calamity of 9/11. As a result, we were probably a little numb (‘What, another tragedy?’) and perhaps a little complacent (‘We’ve been through this before.’). We assumed that local and federal officials would do their usual yeoman’s work at minimizing the devastation, much as the more seasoned Florida officials had done the year before, and we recalled how President Bush had excelled at reassuring and comforting the nation in the wake of past calamities. Instead of planning and acting for the potential worst-case scenario, we took a chance that Katrina would not be as unmanageable, overwhelming, or catastrophic as it turned out. So we allowed our institutional response to go on autopilot.”

Sixteen years later, on Aug. 28, the administration was alert and mobilized for the storm. At the White House, Biden—who was at work—was briefed by Kenneth Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center on the storm itself. Along with Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he spoke with the governors of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi to discuss their needs. He signed an emergency declaration for Louisiana in advance of the storm’s landfall.

Addressing the people of the area, he warned: “Pay attention and be prepared. Have supplies for your household on hand.  Follow the guidance from local authorities.  And if you have to move to shelter, make sure you wear a mask and try to keep some distance because we’re still facing the highly contagious Delta variant as well.”

Unengagement versus engagement

In 2005 Bush seemed detached and unengaged from Katrina and its impact. His decisionmaking appeared sluggish and reactive, always several steps behind events—as he himself admitted.

“The response was not only flawed but, as I said at the time, unacceptable,” Bush wrote in Decision Points. “As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”

In 2021 the administration—and indeed, the whole federal government—mobilized to help the affected area with an impressive effort.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm FEMA delivered 4.5 million meals, 3.6 million liters of water, 250 generators and rushed additional ambulances into affected areas, according to official figures.

FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA) immediately began helping disaster survivors, including providing grants to help pay for housing, home repairs, property losses, medical expenses and even funeral expenses.

A program called Critical Needs Assistance was activated by FEMA to give people left completely destitute $500. It reached 31,000 Louisiana households in the very first days after the storm passed.

Currently, the SBA is issuing low-interest loans to businesses, non-profit organizations, homeowners and renters affected by the storm. Federal officials in mobile units are helping victims apply for the assistance.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is helping families, aiding with mortgage payments and insurance as well as direct housing.

The US Army Corps of Engineers immediately began working to get houses into habitable shape and distribute tarps for damaged roofs. Some 134,000 tarps were provided by Sept. 2. The Corps also rushed in teams to aid with debris removal and temporary housing.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set up a 250-bed medical station in New Orleans, established a medical evacuation site at the airport and sent a team to a hospital in Thibodaux, La., the only fully-working hospital in its region.

Other federal agencies pitching in included the US Coast Guard, the Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau, which contributed personnel, vehicles, aircraft and watercraft.

Biden was also involved in coordinating electrical power restoration with energy company executives, authorizing military reconnaissance flights and the use of satellite surveillance to pinpoint problems.

In addition to these measures, federal workers immediately began clearing roads and restoring transportation and communications. Red tape is being cut and regulations streamlined.

All this effort is light years away from the response of 2005. It demonstrates what an activated federal government, with involved leadership, can accomplish in the face of a disaster.

Unseasoned versus seasoned

President George W. Bush tells FEMA Administrator Michael Brown he’s doing “a heck of a job.” (Photo: AP)

In 2005 FEMA was headed by Michael Brown, a lawyer, former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, a failed Republican congressional candidate and a Bush campaign operative.

While Brown’s qualifications were criticized after Katrina, in fact he had handled some major disasters while at FEMA, notably the Sept. 11, 2001 aftermath and the four-hurricane season of 2004. He began his federal service as general counsel for FEMA and rose from there, rising to  undersecretary, where he oversaw a number of internal FEMA offices like the National Incident Management System Integration Center, the National Disaster Medical System and the Nuclear Incident Response Team.

So Brown was hardly a complete novice when it came to disasters and emergency management.

But Brown was in way over his head during Katrina. Although Bush praised him for “doing a heckuva job,” FEMA’s inability to anticipate, react and organize the response resulted in a spectacle of chaos, deprivation and incompetence. Brown repeatedly gave television interviews in which he expressed ignorance of the most basic facts on the ground and the suffering of New Orleanians.

He was ultimately fired in the midst of the response and replaced with retired Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.  

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell (Photo: FEMA)

Today the administrator of FEMA is Deanne Criswell, a 21-year veteran firefighter. A member of the Colorado Air National Guard, she served in Iraq and Afghanistan. During a previous stint at FEMA she was leader of an Incident Management Assistance Team. She has tackled everything from wildfires, to severe droughts, catastrophic floods and even helped re-unite evacuated families 16 years ago after Hurricane Katrina.

Immediately before being appointed FEMA administrator by Biden, Criswell was New York City Commissioner for Emergency Management. There, she coordinated the city’s response to emergencies like blackouts, fires and power outages all while handling the COVID pandemic and working to prevent collapse of the healthcare system.

So when Hurricane Ida arrived, FEMA and the country had a seasoned, experienced and truly expert first responder at the helm, appointed by Biden. It is making a world of difference.

Flyover versus ground truth

President George W. Bush flies over a devastated New Orleans on Aug. 31, 2005. (Photo: White House)

An iconic image of Bush and Hurricane Katrina was Bush staring out the window of Air Force One, rigid and frozen as he gazes down at the destruction of New Orleans. He chose to fly over the destruction on his return from his vacation in Crawford to Washington, DC.

It was his first look at what the storm had done but the message it sent the nation was one of aloofness and detachment that seemed to sum up the entire federal response.

Bush later tried to make up for that impression. He visited New Orleans 13 times in the years that followed. He gave a speech from the city’s Jackson Square where he pledged $10.5 billion federal dollars for the city’s rebuilding.

But he never fully overcame that initial image of uninvolvement from the flyover.

“Bush needed to show that he was in control. But he also needed to show that he cared—that he understood the situation and shared Americans’ sense of horror and anger, that he was determined to do whatever it took to make the bureaucracy respond,” McClellan wrote. “The flyover images showed none of this. And while privately Bush was quickly becoming more engaged, it was too little, too late.”

Bush reflected in his memoir: “I should have urged Governor [Kathleen] Blanco and Mayor [Ray] Nagin to evacuate New Orleans sooner. I should have come straight back to Washington from California on Day Two or stopped in Baton Rouge on Day Three. I should have done more to signal my determination to help, the way I did in the days after 9/11.”

Biden, by contrast, made a point of visiting FEMA headquarters in Washington during the storm to talk to Criswell directly and thank the responders at FEMA and around the country managing Ida. As of this writing he is scheduled to visit New Orleans today, Sept. 3, to see the damage and hear from the officials and people on the ground about their needs and requirements.

President Joe Biden visits FEMA headquarters in Washington, DC in the runup to Hurricane Ida’s landfall. (Photo: FEMA)

Visiting the scene of a disaster is always a dicey decision for politicians. They don’t want to seem to be exploiting the tragedy or hindering the urgent response. At the same time they want to see the situation for themselves and show their concern—and also get credit for their leadership.

Many times their solution is to fly over a site as Bush did. It gives them an overview of the entire disaster and it can be useful. However, unless it’s combined with executive action and a genuine sense of caring for the afflicted, it can backfire, as it did in Bush’s case. It takes a skilled hand and good judgment to make a disaster visit work constructively, lifting the spirits of victims, while advancing the response.

But most of all, it takes a human being who actually empathizes with other human beings and wants to alleviate their suffering that makes leadership in a disaster effective.

Then, now—and tomorrow

More than just 16 years separate the responses to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ida. They are light years apart in presidential attentiveness, competence, care and reaction.

In his engagement and decisiveness and willingness to support the professionals and experts, Biden is demonstrating the presidential abilities that got him to the Oval Office. To some extent it is making up for the chaotic spectacle of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

More importantly and immediately, though, Biden’s involvement will have profound effects on the afflicted areas, which now stretch from the bayous of Louisiana to the subways of New York City. This was a monster storm and an epic disaster and it will take years to restore the damage it did. But by being engaged and mobilizing the entire federal government and its expertise, a start has been made just as the winds and rain are dying down.

Southwest Floridians should take note and appreciate this. They may need that help next.


For a full history of past disaster responses, see the author’s book: Masters of Disaster: The political and leadership lessons of America’s greatest disasters.

For a detailed examination of the response to Hurricane Katrina, see:

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

After an awful August, can September be better?

Pro and anti-maskers make their battle over a Lee County mask mandate physical at the Lee County Public Schools headquarters in Fort Myers on Monday, Aug. 30. (Image: NBC-2)

Sept. 1, 2021 by David Silverberg

Starting today Lee County students and teachers will be required to wear masks for the next 30 days, a mandate imposed by that county’s school superintendent, Kenneth Savage.

It comes after a judge’s ruling against the governor’s mask mandate ban and a tumultuous school board meeting at the School District of Lee County headquarters in Fort Myers on Monday, Aug. 30, that resulted in violence and arrests.

It’s just part of a changed landscape—biological, political and environmental—in Southwest Florida and around the nation following an awful August.

Might September be better? What are the prospects politically and environmentally?

It’s time to take a survey, or a “tour d’horizon,” to use a French military term, of the challenges likely to confront us in the month that now looms ahead. Forewarned is forearmed.

COVID and consequences

In August, COVID-19 and especially its Delta variant took the lives of 25,408 Americans, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. Of those, 4,900 were Floridians.

The change of the calendar will not alter the challenge of COVID. What is more, with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) executive order banning mask mandates having been overturned in court (although under appeal) the battle over school mask mandates will likely rage on.

A handful of significant local September dates loom as this situation proceeds.

  • Sept. 8: The Collier County Public School Board will hold its regularly monthly meeting. If a mask mandate has not already been imposed, the subject is likely to be discussed.
  • Sept. 14: The Lee County School Board will hold its regular monthly meeting and the mask mandate is likely to be debated again.
  • Sept. 30: Lee County public school officials and Board members will have to decide whether to renew the mandate.

Increasingly it appears that school authorities, simply cannot indulge and accommodate anti-mask and anti-vaxx parents and activists. With the danger to school-age children clear and present, mandates are being imposed by necessity regardless of the opposition by anti-mask parents—and the governor.

Another September date has significance beyond just Southwest Florida schools:

  • Sept. 20: Vaccination booster shots are expected to become widely available.

Climate and consequences

September is the most active month for hurricanes and tropical storms. Louisiana and the western Gulf coast are still digging out from Hurricane Ida and will be for months.

To date Florida has been spared the worst of the weather but there’s no telling if that will hold. It has been a very active Atlantic hurricane season.

Politically, natural disasters tend to favor incumbents if they handle them well. Floridians—in the Southwest and throughout the state—should watch their state and local officials’ response if the worst happens here. Are they focused, responsive and credible when the storm approaches? Do they sound the alarm responsibly with sufficient time for residents to prepare and evacuate? When the storm passes do they take action to aid the afflicted and work effectively with other governments (state and federal) to assist impacted areas?

In addition to the threat of storms, this year there is a red tide bloom that appears to be drifting southward from Tampa Bay. As of this writing it was reaching northern Lee County beaches and barrier islands.

Will the tide reach further south in September? There’s little that residents can do to stop it but business owners, restauranteurs and tourism-based enterprises need to prepare to cope with a blooming September. Local officials and representatives can prepare now to assist Lee, Collier and Charlotte county businesses if they’re hurt by the bloom.

Congress and consequences

For the US Congress, September is going to be a jam-packed month.

President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan and a $3.5 trillion budget already passed in the House will be moving toward final approval.

As part of its efforts to clean up the environment and combat climate change, the infrastructure bill holds promise of resources for Southwest Florida.

Southwest Florida Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) oppose both measures.  Donalds, who sits on the House Budget Committee, was particularly vocal in his opposition.

Two larger elements will complicate all congressional deliberations.

One is the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal. There is no doubt that the scenes of chaos and retreat will hurt Biden and impede passage of his domestic agenda. They have already created an opening for Republicans to attack him. Donalds and Steube joined a group of Republicans calling for Biden’s resignation, a publicity stunt that will go nowhere. (Interestingly, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) did not join the resignation movement.)

The other is the work of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack. As it proceeds with its investigation and hearings it will throw a spotlight on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, former President Donald Trump’s role in it and the role of his congressional allies.

None of the Southwest Florida congressmen appear to have played significant parts in the insurrection and attack on the Capitol, so they’re unlikely to be in the spotlight as enablers or accomplices. However, the involvement of other Southwest Floridians could emerge as the investigation continues.

Analysis: A better September?

For Southwest Florida, which is so far both intellectually and physically from Afghanistan and Washington, DC, the single overriding issue going into September is surviving and containing COVID. It is literally a matter of life and death.

A doctor attempting to attend the Lee County School Board meeting (right, in laboratory coat and mask) is shoved by an anti-mask protester. (Image: NBC-2)

As COVID has taken its relentless toll, the intensity and volume of COVID-precaution opponents has grown louder and more emotional. Ironically, as COVID-deniers are less able to rely on reason or data to oppose mask mandates, COVID precautions or vaccinations, they’re dialing up the fury to compensate. Instead of logic, they’ve offered rage; instead of argument, they’ve offered rants; instead of masking, they’re infecting.

If it were only their own lives at risk they could take their chances without harming others but they can’t. In ten days of school, 600 cases of new COVID infections were reported in Collier County, according to the Naples Daily News. A Lee County school system dashboard showed 2,655 cases, according to NBC-2 News.

The soaring rates of infection and the obstinate and increasingly emotional refusal of so many local residents to accept simple precautions like masks or vaccinations make the area a COVID Delta hotspot. In addition to the tragedy of the people who are going to be killed or permanently impaired by the disease, the area’s national reputation as a dangerous location is going to grow.

That reputation will have real, on-the-ground implications for the area’s businesses, tourism and hospitality.

September is usually a time when full-time residents flee the area. The heat is hottest, the storms are most likely and tourist season hasn’t started yet, so streets, restaurants and shops are largely deserted. For businesses, though, it’s also a time to start preparing for season.

If, under DeSantis, COVID continues to ravage Florida and if Southwest Florida’s COVID-deniers continue making as much noise as they are, the attractiveness of the Paradise Coast is likely to precipitously decline as a tourist destination and a place to do business.

On top of that, the hostility toward immigrants and efforts to curtail immigration that were begun during the Trump administration are bearing fruit, manifesting themselves in the labor shortage the area’s businesses are experiencing.

Add to that the likelihood of a major red tide bloom, the result of the Piney Point mining waste stack being pumped into Tampa Bay in April.

As of right now, far from a better September, Southwest Florida seems headed for a perfect storm of COVID, climate and controversy that will combine to hurt the area going into 2022.

But Southwest Florida residents and their leaders have some options: If they ignore the naysayers and anti-vaxxers, get vaccinated and receive booster shots, they might just flatten the COVID curve and at least make the region less of a hotspot.

If officials and local governments acknowledge the reality of climate change—which they are increasingly doing—they can prepare for the storms and algal blooms that are part of life in Southwest Florida. Preparedness, resilience and realism can go a long way toward mitigating the worst impacts of environmental instability.

If Southwest Florida’s representatives in Tallahassee and Washington, DC cease acting like two-dimensional, rigid, ideological cartoons and instead work for the actual good of their people and the region, they may actually win the state and federal support and assistance that the area needs to cope with the challenges ahead.

It’s a tall order and a lot of ifs. But hope springs eternal.

Liberty lives in light.

© 2021 by David Silverberg