There are disasters and there are disasters and the way politicians respond to them is certainly not the same. Their response to them, or lack thereof, tells much about their political motives and personal sensibilities. The Bush response to the Katrina debacle versus the California wildfires is a near textbook example of that. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had barely lifted the receiver to call the White House to plead for emergency federal disaster relief to battle the wildfires raging in Southern California before Bush issued an emergency order. The governor's call was pro forma anyway. Bush it appeared already had the disaster proclamation signed, sealed, and ready to be delivered before Schwarzenegger's call. He hurried a virtual armada of federal personnel, equipment, and funds to Southern California, and ordered the head of FEMA, and Homeland Security to make haste to get there. Bush cancelled a scheduled trip to St. Louis to scurry to California on Thursday to get a first hand glimpse of the damage and presumably to give political and moral support to the federal rebuilding effort.
Bush was in a rush to get out front on the wildfires for good reason. He still reels from the big hits that he took and continues to take for his comatose response to the Katrina disaster. Charges of racism, insensitivity, bungling, incompetence, disdain for poor people, and Republicans playing politics with poor black's lives, were only a sampling of the digs that were hurled at Bush for fiddling while New Orleans and the Gulf region sank. Bush has barely a year left in his White House tenure. His domestic and foreign policy initiatives are in shambles. He has a pack of Republican presidential candidates screaming at him to do something and do something fast to rescue the flagging fortunes of the party and their candidacies; in short to look and sound more presidential.
The California wildfires give him a chance to look like a strong, caring, and decisive leader in a time of crisis, and to atone for his Katrina fumble. It also helps that the hundreds of homes that were wiped out were not in a poor ramshackle, crime plagued inner city neighborhood such as the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, but are in middle and wealthy, suburban, resort and semi-rural neighborhoods and areas. A speedy offer of bushels of federal dollars and personnel is a win-win guarantee to draw public praise and applause.
This is not to say that the White House response to the fires is solely a crass, cynical political calculation designed to dab some political sheen back onto Bush's deeply corroded star. Bush's offer of "prayers and thoughts with those who've been affected," seemed genuine enough. In fact, anyone with a heart would offer prayers for those that lost their homes, and suffered injury and death. It's certainly right and appropriate that the federal government play a big role in relief and recovery when any catastrophic disaster strikes. State and local governments simply don't have the resources or the capacity to deal with these kinds of apocalyptic crises.
But despite Bush's speedy response, as terrible as the wildfires are and the suffering and damage that they have wreaked, they are no more horrific than the towering suffering and damage Katrina wreaked. Two years later, thousands of hurricane victims are jobless, homeless, stuck in trailers in distant cities. The hard hit mostly black and poor Ninth Ward in New Orleans still looks like a ghost town. New Orleans officials still shout at the Bush administration to do more to speed up the glacial pace rebuilding process there.
Bush's timely rush to battle the Southern California wildfire conflagration is commendable. The pity is that the same timely rush and effort wasn't made two years earlier in a region a thousand miles east and south of Southern California.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a Los Angeles based author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press).