Federal Effort Draws Bipartisan Backlash

Times Staff Writers

Frustrated lawmakers criticized the federal response to Hurricane Katrina on Friday, demanding that the Bush administration step up its efforts to relieve the suffering and promising to investigate what went wrong with emergency preparedness efforts.

Some of the harshest criticism came from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. At a news conference with the Urban League, the NAACP and the Black Leadership Forum -- and later in speeches on the House floor -- caucus members assailed the administration.

The federal response to the destruction and havoc caused by the hurricane “looks dysfunctional to me right now,” said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles).

Watson and the other black leaders did not allege racism in the handling of a crisis that has fallen disproportionately on the poor and on minorities in the Gulf Coast.


Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) said the issue was “not about race right now. There will be another time to have issues about color.”

Some Republicans joined Democrats in singling out the Federal Emergency Management Agency for criticism.

Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he had asked the committee with oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, to hold hearings on the agency’s handling of the hurricane’s aftermath after Congress resumes work Tuesday.

One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, called for FEMA to be separated from the Department of Homeland Security.


“This is not solely a response to the tragedy in the Gulf, but rather it is the result of the increasing evidence that FEMA should not be hindered by a top-heavy bureaucracy when they are needed to act swiftly to save lives,” Foley said in a statement.

Republican leaders said they were considering an economic stimulus package that probably would include tax relief for hurricane victims.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he agreed with President Bush’s remark Friday that the response had been “unacceptable.”

“Hard lessons have been learned, tragic lessons have been learned,” Blunt said. “We have to respond more quickly; we have to respond in the right ways and be sure our priorities are right.”


Blunt and other Republicans urged national unity, saying the focus should be on fixing the problems and ensuring aid for victims and not on laying blame. But Democrats did not hesitate to sound off.

They criticized the administration on the House floor after the $10.5-billion emergency relief bill that Bush requested the day before cleared Congress.

“Why are there not buses around the clock” driving flood survivors to safe ground? asked Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank). “Why is it that these news crews can go and take this devastating footage and find these survivors and the relief effort cannot?”

Congress will ask those questions in formal inquiries, Schiff said, “but the rest of the country is asking now.”


Along with national heartbreak, said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), “there is also outrage. We still haven’t dedicated enough resources to improving our emergency response capabilities. The people of the Gulf Coast ... are crying out for leadership.”

The government’s actions so far, Nadler said, are “a national disgrace.”

Political analysts said that the disaster and the questions raised about the federal response opened political fissures and fault lines that probably would have long-term repercussions.

“You have Democrats and even some Republicans running for cover and criticizing Bush,” said David Bositis, senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank. “There is a substantial chance that it will carry over into the 2006 elections” if the relief efforts do not improve and reconstruction projects falter.


Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, (D-Md.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, agreed.

“People in this country, deep down in their hearts, believe in fairness,” Cummings said. “When they see their fellow citizens being left on rooftops ... they see people who are wading through water with dead bodies ... it really gives them a wake-up call.”

But Republican strategists said it was too early to say whether the initial handling of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath would have any effect on next year’s congressional races. By then, they said, reconstruction should be well underway and the horrific images of the last few days will have faded.

“I think it is a huge mistake for any politician to be running around and yelling about who is to blame and who is not,” said Jim McLaughlin, a GOP pollster and strategist. “We’re seeing a lot of horror stories on television right now, but you’re going to have a lot of uplifting stories as rebuilding begins.”


What seems clear is that lawmakers will return to Washington on Tuesday to find their agenda transformed from what it was when they left for summer recess five weeks ago.

Although Congress must deal with a raft of spending bills and the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court, lawmakers can be expected to focus considerable time and energy on dealing with the hurricane’s aftermath and the massive rebuilding effort.

The disaster also is likely to make it that much harder for Congress to trim the budget deficit and hold down federal spending.

Although the black congressional leaders did not broach race as an issue in their criticism of the federal relief efforts, the Rev. Herb Lusk II, a black minister in Philadelphia and an outspoken Bush supporter, said that “by coming out and making political statements,” he thought the black caucus was “headed in the wrong direction.”


“I get the feeling this is going to become somewhat of a political thing, and I’m disappointed about that,” Lusk said. He added that with victims awaiting rescue, “all of our energies should be directed toward helping the people of our country that need us right now.”

Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), chairman of the black caucus, said that although he was sure some people were perceiving the controversy over relief efforts as a racial issue, he did not.

“I don’t think it’s constructive to think of it in racial terms,” Watt said. “Because whether it’s race or poverty really doesn’t matter. There’s a disaster and response that needs to take place. Painting this in racial terms doesn’t help or hurt that.... We just think it puts the focus in the wrong place.”

Watt added that he believed income, rather than race, was a greater factor in determining who was left stranded in New Orleans.


“The people who had the means were able to respond to the request to get out of New Orleans before the hurricane,” he said. “So white people and black people who were poor were unable to make that kind of response.... God didn’t visit this only on black people. God visited this on New Orleans.”



Daily update


President Bush made his first on-the-ground visit to storm-damaged areas, while chaos continued in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast’s refineries began to recover. Events as of 9 p.m.:

Key developments

- National Guard troops arrived in force to restore order and hand out supplies in New Orleans. Authorities said the city’s convention center, where thousands of people were sheltered for days in unsafe conditions, was secure.

- Inspecting Gulf Coast disaster scenes from the air and on the ground, President Bush said the damage was “worse than imaginable.” Bush acknowledged the government’s failure to stop lawlessness and help desperate people in New Orleans. “The results are not enough,” he said.


- Congress passed a $10.5-billion disaster aid package; Bush was expected to sign it by day’s end.

- Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) called for Bush to appoint a Cabinet-level official to direct the federal response to the devastation.


Sources: ESRI, USGS, U.S. Department of Energy, Times staff and wire reports