Desperately Avoiding Katrina

The Politico is reporting that the Obama administration is in something of a “P.R. panic” about the British Petroleum rig explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Signs of that panic were made open today when Robert Gibbs singled out Fox News’ Wendell Goler to make the point that his network (Fox) had the temerity to let Michael Brown make inflammatory statements on Neil Cavuto’s show. Brown accused the Obama administration of letting the Federal disaster response linger so that the increased damage would give the Obama administration an excuse to ban permanently off shore drilling. I don’t believe Brown’s speculation, but Gibbs took the bait and made himself look stupid (again).

Gibbs, responding to an oil spill query from Goler, called the network out for failing to challenge Brown, now a conservative Colorado radio host.

“I watched Fox yesterday — you open both the double doors — and waaah! — Here I am,” said Gibbs.

As Goler tried to calm Gibbs down, the press secretary began talking about “the special and unique interview with Michael Brown, who for those who weren’t let in on the big secret… intimated on Fox — and it wasn’t, didn’t appear to be, pushed back on real hard — that this spill was leaked on purpose in order for us to undo decisions.”

“You should call headquarters,” he told Goler, and talk to “whoever makes the decision to put people like that on.”

Has Gibbs ever offered that advice to any other network? Olberman? Maddow? Nevermind. Matthews? But about the public relations panic that is allegedly consuming the White House, Glenn Thrush at Politico offers this:

Hope and change was Obama’s headline message in 2008, but those atop his campaign have always said that it was Obama’s cool competence — exemplified by his level-headed handling of the financial meltdown during the campaign’s waning days — that sealed the deal with independents and skeptical Democrats. The promise of rational, responsive and efficient government is Obama’s brand, his justification for bigger and bolder federal interventions and, ultimately, his rationale for a second term.

So there was a “little bit of panic,” according to one administration official, when White House aides sensed the oil spill narrative getting away from them last week. The White House was particularly alarmed by the rash of stories comparing the Obama administration’s initial response with President George W. Bush’s sluggish response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Katrina was one of the first issues Obama seized upon after his election to the Senate in 2004 — and he made a highly publicized visit to New Orleans during the campaign, using the Bush administration response as a metaphor for incompetent and uncaring government.

… Dana Perino, the last White House press secretary under Bush, even sounded sympathetic to Obama’s plight. “I don’t think this is comparable to Katrina,” she said. “But … they are learning just how hard it is to get situational awareness during a crisis. … Things are going to overtake them. They are learning this right now.”

A timeline of the White House response shows the difficulty federal officials initially had getting a clear picture of the disaster.

The Obama administration should be thankful that they are getting their information from BP and not a Ray Nagin or Kathleen Blanco. But I think the White House is also concerned about failures in the federal response infrastructure such as this:

If U.S. officials had followed up on a 1994 response plan for a major Gulf oil spill, it is possible that the spill could have been kept under control and far from land.

The problem: The federal government did not have a single fire boom on hand.

The “In-Situ Burn” plan produced by federal agencies in 1994 calls for responding to a major oil spill in the Gulf with the immediate use of fire booms.

But in order to conduct a successful test burn eight days after the Deepwater Horizon well began releasing massive amounts of oil into the Gulf, officials had to purchase one from a company in Illinois.

When federal officials called, Elastec/American Marine, shipped the only boom it had in stock, Jeff Bohleber, chief financial officer for Elastec, said today.

At federal officials’ behest, the company began calling customers in other countries and asking if the U.S. government could borrow their fire booms for a few days, he said.

A single fire boom being towed by two boats can burn up to 1,800 barrels of oil an hour, Bohleber said. That translates to 75,000 gallons an hour, raising the possibility that the spill could have been contained at the accident scene 100 miles from shore.

“They said this was the tool of last resort. No, this is absolutely the asset of first use. Get in there and start burning oil before the spill gets out of hand,” Bohleber said. “If they had six or seven of these systems in place when this happened and got out there and started burning, it would have significantly lessened the amount of oil that got loose.”

In the days after the rig sank, U.S Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry said the government had all the assets it needed. She did not discuss why officials waited more than a week to conduct a test burn.

This is the sort of criticism that speaks to competency and the Obama administration knows this which is why the mere mention of a name like Michael Brown sets the Obama message machine into overdrive. Criticism of President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina was Senator Obama’s signature issue in his run up to the campaign for the White House. Now that President Obama is encountering the inherent limits and failures of a federal bureaucracy to disasters that occur on his own watch his administration is on defense instead of offense.

Note: Comments contributor iwogisdead links to this timelime. Thanks

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