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Katrina Five Years After: Hurricane Devastated Political Futures as Well as New Orleans

  • The Key Players

    Sept. 12, 2005: Vice Admiral Thad Allen and an unidentified man help lift up a downed power line during a tour of downtown New Orleans with President Bush, Lousiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Lt. Gen. Russ Honore, second from right, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. (AP)

  • One State and One Reputation Saved

    Aug. 29, 2006: Miss. Gov. Haley Barbour speaks at a memorial service commemorating the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. at the Town Green in Biloxi, Miss. (AP)

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf region, killing nearly 2,000 and displacing more than 250,000 others from Louisiana to Florida. This week, in a series titled "Hurricane Katrina: Five Years After," FoxNews.com looks back on the costliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States.

Hurricane Katrina flooded a city five years ago and took with it lives, property and dignity. It also threatened to sweep away the political reputations of nearly everyone it touched.

The roles of the key political figures associated with one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history are rarely discussed in a context of praise. In Katrina lore, the heroes were the citizens, the aid workers and those who opened their homes and cities to the de facto refugees in Texas, Georgia and elsewhere -- not the public officials.

A small handful escaped the storm with their reputations unscathed, but those closest to the action mostly could only apologize for a catastrophe that proved the limits of government. 

"Is there anybody who people look at and say, 'You know what? That person really came through'? In terms of political figures, no," said Peter F. Burns, political science professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

Ray Nagin, the New Orleans mayor who started out as the outspoken champion for his downtrodden city, left office with much of the reconstruction unfinished. Gov. Kathleen Blanco was forced to acknowledge shortcomings in the state's response and left office prematurely. And President George W. Bush faced one of the biggest crises of confidence of his tumultuous administration.

For Bush, politically, it took the wind out of his administration at a time when he was fighting hard to sustain public support for the Iraq war. In a magazine article published last year, two former aides described the aftermath as devastating. Matthew Dowd, Bush's pollster, called it the "tipping point." Former counselor and communications director Dan Bartlett said Katrina was "the final nail in the coffin."

The Bush administration took the blame largely because the federal response was slow in coming to the rescue -- a delay that the administration blamed on local and state governments not asking for assistance. 

For local officials, the problems were top-down.

A Mayor Who Talked But Didn't Walk

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin started out as a strong advocate for "the Big Easy." Far from a national figure before the storm, Nagin, a Democrat, emerged as his city's biggest and loudest cheerleader when the levees broke and water from Lake Pontchartrain began flowing into the streets. He seemed to give Washington a kick in the pants with his famed and frantic "get off your asses" rant on a local radio station.

But Nagin had to answer for problems as well. He ordered a mandatory evacuation, but it came just 20 hours before Katrina made landfall -- he said before the storm that he was concerned about being sued by hotels and other businesses. The city also failed to use its public vehicles to take people out of harm's way -- images of a parking lot full of flooded school buses filled post-hurricane media coverage.

Nagin, who was elected with a broad and diverse base of support in 2002, began to change his tone after the storm. In January 2006 he referred to New Orleans as a "chocolate" city. In a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he made several other leaps, saying God wanted the city to be mostly African American and that God was sending "hurricane after hurricane" as punishment for the Iraq war. He later apologized, but he ran a racially divisive, though ultimately successful, campaign for re-election that year.

During his second term, Nagin was criticized for scandals involving his administration and grand reconstruction proposals that were allowed to languish. The term-limited mayor left office quietly early this year, replaced by Mitch Landrieu.

Thomas Langston, political science professor at Tulane University, said Nagin has no national career ahead of him. He described the mayor's second term as "disastrous" and unfulfilling.

"He made grandiose promises. It was just a mess," he said.

Landrieu is trying to pick up where Nagin left off. According to the Times-Picayune, Landrieu is pledging to complete more than 100 projects over the next several years. Of the 655 projects announced under Nagin, just 273 are finished or near completion.

Blanco's Legacy

Another figure who faded from the spotlight was Louisiana's Democratic governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco. The first female governor of Louisiana, she was seen before the storm as a strong incumbent to stand for re-election.

As the storm approached, Blanco was out in front, declaring a state of emergency and calling on Bush to do the same, which he did. She reportedly called Bush on the day Katrina made landfall and asked for every emergency response the federal government could throw at the storm.

But Blanco subsequently rejected attempts to federalize the National Guard. State officials also initially blocked the Red Cross from entering New Orleans.

Burns said communications between her office and the White House were "disastrous." 

In early 2007 she announced she would not seek another term.

Langston said Blanco was in a tough position, between two very hard places, but that she did not exercise her authority to the extent she could have. 

"She had an uncooperative, antagonistic White House on one side of her and a completely devastated and overwrought mayor on the other side. So she was in a terrible position," he said. "But she did not … rise to the occasion."

The Federal Response

The shortfalls at the local level typically trace in some way to problems with or in Washington, and the tales of administration missteps are seemingly endless.

Not only were there communication problems with Blanco, but there were image problems. The president did not appear publicly engaged in the run-up to the disaster -- he was at his Crawford ranch before the storm hit, left, and returned again after it made landfall. In a lasting image, he flew over New Orleans en route to Washington on Aug. 31, two days after the storm. 

The next day, Bush said in an interview that he didn't think "anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

As slow as it took to respond, the efforts continued at a plodding pace as all levels of government tried to evacuate stranded residents out of New Orleans. Evacuation of the New Orleans Saints' Superdome took days, as did the arrival of food and water to the New Orleans Convention Center, another emergency center.

A week after landfall, the Army Corps of Engineers repaired the levee and started to drain downtown New Orleans. By then, the dead were being counted and the Ninth Ward was in ruins.

Bush took responsibility for the failures on Sept. 13, saying "to the extent that the federal government didn't do its job right, I take responsibility." 

But former FEMA Director Michael Brown arguably remains the most controversial figure whose name is forever tied to the Katrina tragedy.

His reputation problems snowballed within days of the catastrophe and only got worse after Bush famously told "Brownie" that he was "doing a heck of a job."

Questions were raised about Brown's experience, having come from a background with the International Arabian Horse Association. In a shocking Sept. 1 interview, Brown said his team had just learned about victims who had sought refuge at the convention center. 

Published e-mails from Brown portrayed the image of an aloof administrator, with Brown asking if he could quit yet and joking about his clothes.

Brown tendered his resignation on Sept. 12, 10 days after he was doing a "heck of a job." He now works as a radio host in Colorado. 

Since leaving the administration, he has vigorously defended his name and challenged the narrative that FEMA dropped the ball.

In testimony several months after his resignation, Brown said he warned the administration about the damage the storm could do and that he was being "abandoned" and made a scapegoat for broad-based failings.

Political Survivors

Analysts say the two U.S. senators from Louisiana, David Vitter and Mary Landrieu, have managed to escape Katrina without losing too much face. As two of 100 senators, they were able to avoid any direct responsibility. Landrieu, a Democrat, won re-election after the storm, and Vitter, a Republican, is up for re-election this year, though his current political troubles have more to do with extramarital relations than Katrina repercussions.

One other figure who managed to weather the storm, so to speak, and come out stronger on the other side, was Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Though Mississippi -- and Alabama -- didn't face nearly the pummeling that New Orleans got, devastation rocked towns along the Gulf coast.

But five years later, Barbour, who was handily re-elected in 2007 and is occasionally cited as the most influential Republican in current U.S. politics, issued a report Thursday saying much of his state's recovery initiatives in housing, infrastructure systems and emergency communications, have been successful.

"The progress we have made in these five years is a testament to the strength and determination of Mississippians," Barbour said. "We now have the ability to focus on long-term solutions that keep our coast vibrant and economically successful."

Langston said that if any officials come out looking better than before Katrina made landfall, it would be military relief coordinator Russel Honore and then-Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who was put in charge of relief after Brown left and returned to lead response efforts this year following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Langston noted that Katrina, unlike the BP oil spill, did not give any elected official the stage to shine. Whereas officials like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have appeared to improve their standing by flexing a take-charge attitude in the wake of the oil spill, fingerpointing after Katrina tended to be circular.

"This was not a disaster that was designed to help incumbents," Langston said. "In Katrina's case, there was too much local responsibility for it to be evaded."