Finally Times Gets Katrina Coverage (Half) Right

"There is no doubt that state and local officials were partly to blame for the slow and inefficient response to Hurricane Katrina." But the Times doubted it for years, focusing all the blame on Bush and the federal government's response.

Some interesting backfill took place in Saturday's story on the swift and effective government response to the wildfires in California - and the marked contrast that made to the flawed reaction on all levels of government after Hurricane Katrina.

White House reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg monitored Bush's supportive trip to California for "A Firestorm, a Deluge And a Sharp Political Dig."

Although Stolberg's story certainly wasn't overly sympathetic to Bush, it was nonetheless more fair and worked in more GOP points about Katrina than the grand total of the paper's coverage from 2005. It managed to briefly dispel some of the thick clouds of conventional wisdom massed by the media. (Times Watch marked the Times' blame-Bush-first approach to Katrina the paper's1# lowlightin 2005.)

But first Stolberg engaged in more of the same.

"All week, as Southern California's canyons have burned, the images of the orderly, well-coordinated evacuation effort have stood in sharp contrast to the chaotic memories of Hurricane Katrina, where evacuees, many of them poor and black, were trapped in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans for days without adequate food and water.

"President Bush long ago accepted responsibility for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. But now his administration and its allies are using the California disaster, with its affluent victims and reverse 911 telephone-warning system, to revisit Louisiana's handling of the 2005 hurricane - and, in the process, to rewrite the story of one of the Bush administration's biggest setbacks.

Then Stolberg admitted something the Times didn't do after the Katrina catastrophe - suggesting someone other than Bush might have carried some responsibility (incidentally, the Times did seem to "doubt" state and local officials carried any blame, judging by the paper's coverage).

"There is no doubt that state and local officials were partly to blame for the slow and inefficient response to Hurricane Katrina. And people on all sides of the hurricane vs. wildfires debate agree the storm, which put nearly an entire city under water, flooding evacuation routes and knocking out vital communications links, was a disaster of far greater magnitude, and thus California and New Orleans cannot be compared.

"Yet the president drew the contrast on Thursday in California when, appearing with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, he said, 'It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the Statehouse willing to take the lead.' The remark was widely viewed as a veiled swipe at Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Louisiana Democrat, who says she resents it.

"Other swipes have not been so veiled. The conservative columnist Rich Lowry, writing in the National Review Online, drew the contrast more pointedly. 'The California wildfires will produce no Blancos,' he wrote, adding, 'California's government isn't as addled with corruption and incompetence as Louisiana's and that has made the difference."

Stolberg portrayed these criticisms as unfair attacks on Gov. Blanco, but waited almost to the end of the story to remind her readers that Blanco's reputation suffered so after Katrina that she didn't even run for reelection.

"Mr. Bush's remarks in California have clearly struck a nerve. Governor Blanco complained to The Times-Picayune of New Orleans that she had spent nearly a week as 'the only game in town,' leading without the president's help. Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and Louisiana native who has been active in that state's recovery effort, and who has in the past praised Mr. Bush, could barely contain her outrage."


"Bush administration officials have long believed that if Ms. Blanco had immediately allowed the federal government to assume control of the military response in Louisiana, the outcome would have been different. That debate is playing out again and getting caught up in state politics.

"With the election last week of Representative Bobby Jindal, a Republican, to succeed Ms. Blanco, who did not seek re-election, Bush administration allies argue that the people of that state have rendered their own judgment.

"'There's a reason she's former Governor Blanco,' said Mr. Wehner, the former Bush adviser, who is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. 'It's not an effort to shift blame, because the federal government made mistakes, too. But I think with the distance of time and history, the truth will emerge, and the truth is that it was a massive failure at the state and local level.'"