The Oil Spill is Not Like Katrina

06/01/2010 09:24 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After weeks of being pushed by right-wing bloggers, the "Obama's Katrina" meme, comparing Deepwater Horizon to the 2005 hurricane, has finally made it all the way to the mainstream, with no less a liberal stalwart than Frank Rich using the phrase in his column title this past Sunday. It's unfortunate, not only because it seems to have stemmed from a cynical attempt to politick the disaster into a blow to Obama's approval ratings similar to that suffered by Bush after Katrina.

Those who have asked whether Deepwater Horizon is Obama's Katrina have generally focused on whether Obama has done enough to address a major disaster, and whether the government's slow response is comparable to that of FEMA in the aftermath of Katrina. These questions are legitimate. Yet the nature of the Deepwater Horizon crisis bears less resemblance to Katrina than it does to the financial meltdown. The underlying problem isn't underfunded public infrastructure or inadequate government preparation, but rather, lax corporate risk assessment and insufficient regulation.

In the case of Katrina, the fundamental failure was the government's. Protecting citizens against a natural disaster was government's responsibility, and it did not take the necessary steps to fulfill that responsibility, like funding levee maintenance. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the responsibility to operate oil pumps safely and cleanly was BP's. The government bore responsibility to regulate BP's safety standards, but not to actually maintain the equipment. It's the difference between a car accident caused by the government's failure to maintain a highway and one caused by a lax inspector's failure to notice a car's leaky gas tank. The result may look the same, but the root of the problem is different.

Consequently, each disaster demands a different response. In the case of Katrina, the disaster itself--the actual storm--was going to end eventually, no matter what government did or didn't do. But with the oil spill, as with the financial collapse, we have to figure out how to staunch the bleeding, whether of oil or 401(k)s. After that comes the clean up and reform--enactment of stricter regulations and strengthening of regulatory agencies to ensure responsible corporate conduct. Ultimately, for both the financial crisis and oil spill, prevention of future meltdowns requires reform addressing the fundamental nature of an industry upon which much of our economy directly or indirectly relies.

Though the reforms enacted after Katrina entailed significant change to the federal emergency management structure, the ultimate impact of that disaster on the country as a whole was more limited. To be sure, Katrina utterly upended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and the coast is still working to recover. But after the initial shock and horror subsided, most of those living beyond the Gulf Coast continued their lives more or less unchanged, save for sending a check to the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity every now and then. But oil and finance undergird the U.S. economy and way of life, and the changes required to prevent other disasters in the future will bypass no one.

Finally, though the effects of Katrina were relatively concentrated within a geographical area, within that area they were devastating beyond the comprehension of most outside the region. As much damage as the Deepwater Horizon spill is wreaking upon the delicate Gulf ecosystem, and as tragic as the deaths of the workers' deaths are, we shouldn't forget that close to two thousand people died during Katrina, that many thousands more suffered greatly while stranded on rooftops or on highway overpasses or in makeshift shelters, and that thousands were displaced permanently from the homes they and their families had occupied for generations. By no means should we dismiss ecological impact as unimportant, but neither should we minimize the lives lost and uprooted due to Katrina in the service of a lazy comparison and juicy sound bite.

Given these substantial differences, it would seem that the view of Deepwater Horizon as a second Katrina is more a product of the perception that the oil spill is a "natural disaster"--though the disaster itself isn't remotely natural--and Gulf Coast location than any deep similarities between the two. That, and the impressive ability of right wing pundits to coin catchphrases get their talking points into the mainstream discourse.