You never forget the sight — or the smell — of an entire city under water. A few feet away from me, even President George W. Bush looked stunned.
It was Sept. 2, 2005— five days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, wiping out communities in Alabama and Mississippi and sending fatal floods into the streets of New Orleans. As a White House correspondent for Newsweek, I was among the small group of reporters accompanying Bush for his first on-the-ground visit to the region amid criticism of his administration’s slow response to the storm.
We were standing near the president and an entourage of local, state and federal officials on an incline near the shore of Lake Pontchartrain overlooking the 17th Street Canal on the northern side of New Orleans. Still swollen with water, the canal had been breached by Katrina’s storm surge, which caused one of its walls to collapse. On one side of the canal, homes stood windblown but mostly dry. On the other, an entire neighborhood was submerged under dark, swampy water. A few hundred yards away, I could see a little church with a white steeple and slanted roof. The water was so high, the church looked like a paper airplane floating in the muck. The air around us smelled like a musty mix of stale water and natural gas.
That Friday was one of those typically hot, miserable days in the waning days of summer in the South — when the blazing sun and soupy humidity make it feel as though you are slowly roasting on the outer ring of hell. But for many in New Orleans, it actually was hell. Though we were miles from the center of the city, the site of the most horrific images of suffering, we could hear in the distance the eerie pulsing of helicopters that were still conducting rescues of people who had been stranded by the storm — or surveying the floodwaters for bodies of those who hadn’t survived.
Officially, Bush had come to this spot to see rebuilding efforts on the canal and assess how the federal government might do more to help. But the trip was also about regaining the his footing after days of bipartisan criticism that he and his administration had been caught off guard by the storm and had somehow made one of the worst natural disasters the country has ever seen even worse by their own dithering.
But presidents are only human. And while Bush was clearly trying to project an image of leadership, not unlike his iconic bullhorn moment near Ground Zero, it was hard to miss the look on his face as he saw the floodwaters up close. He seemed to be as shocked as the rest of us at the sight of one the country’s most beautiful old cities swallowed in a swampy sea of muck. I’d guess the same question that was in my head was also on his mind: How will New Orleans ever recover from a storm like this?
The days leading up to that moment near the 17th Street Canal had been nothing less than surreal. With many of my colleagues, I’d spent the month of August camped in Crawford, Texas, where Bush was on what his aides often described as a “working vacation.” The summer had not been a pleasant one for the president. Nine months after his re-election, Bush’s agenda had gone almost nowhere, and he and his aides seemed frustrated and exhausted.
Bush was still mired in the ongoing war in Iraq, where American casualties continued to mount, and his attempt to pivot to domestic issues had hit a wall. His dominant agenda item — a bid to allow younger taxpayers to divert some of their Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts — was on the verge of political death. That Monday, Bush was scheduled for a last-minute trip through retirement communities in Arizona and California to push his Social Security plan in hopes of drumming up support. That Tuesday, he would give a speech defending the Iraq war on board an aircraft carrier in San Diego.
When Katrina took aim at the Gulf Coast, Bush aides considered postponing the president’s West Coast swing. But in spite of the dire forecast, they pushed ahead. On Air Force One en route to Arizona, reporters in the press cabin watched live news coverage on the plane’s TV screens as the eye of the storm swept into New Orleans. Even then, there were mixed reports about how the city had fared. Some suggested New Orleans had dodged a bullet, but there were also unconfirmed reports of rising floodwaters in neighborhoods off the canals. On the plane, we asked if Bush was watching the same news reports as we were, but got only vague answers. Spokesman Scott McClellan insisted his boss was keeping in touch with local, state and federal officials on the track of the storm.
Images from the next 24 hours would come back to haunt Bush again and again. As New Orleans was battered by Katrina’s winds and rain, the president departed Air Force One in Phoenix and was met by his onetime rival, Sen. John McCain. It was McCain’s 69th birthday, and White House aides wheeled up a birthday cake, which Bush presented to the Arizona senator. The two awkwardly posed for a photo and then quickly parted, leaving the cake melting and uneaten on the sweltering 110-degree tarmac. It would have been an odd moment even if Katrina hadn’t been ravaging the Gulf Coast.
The next morning, after federal officials had confirmed that many of the levees designed to protect New Orleans had been breached and the city was flooded, Bush decided to cut his trip short. But he still planned to deliver the speech in San Diego and return to Texas for one last night before going back to Washington to deal with the storm. Backstage in San Diego, a country music singer gifted Bush with a guitar, which he playfully strummed for a few seconds. An ABC News crew captured the moment on film, and it quickly became one of the defining images of the storm: the president seemingly at ease as the residents of the Gulf Coast suffered.
The growing perception that Bush was disconnected wasn’t helped by his decision the next day to fly over New Orleans on his way back to Washington from Texas. As Air Force One dipped as low as 1,700 feet above the ground at points during what became a 35-minute tour, the president saw countless neighborhoods totally submerged. At one point, the presidential aircraft even circled the Superdome, where Bush saw part of the roof peeled away. “It’s devastating,” Bush aides quoted the president as saying. “It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”
Over the objections of some of his aides, political adviser Karl Rove allowed photojournalists traveling with Bush to come to the front of the plane and photograph the president as he peered through the window at the damage along the Gulf Coast below. Almost immediately, critics used the images to attack Bush as being even more out of touch with the disaster.
At first, the White House defended Bush’s flyover — saying the president had wanted to land but that he didn’t want to impede rescue efforts. But Bush later wrote in his book “Decision Points” that his decision to fly over the scene was a “serious mistake.” “That photo of me hovering over the damage suggested I was detached from the suffering on the ground,” he wrote. “That was not how I felt. But once that impression was formed, I couldn’t change it.”
Back in Washington, Bush immediately planned a trip back to the region that Friday, determined to get a handle on a disaster that threatened to sink the rest of his presidency. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin were demanding whatever help Bush could send. Nagin, holed up at a downtown New Orleans hotel, was losing patience. Calling in to a local talk-radio station, the mayor lost it when asked about a conversation he’d just had with the president about the federal response. “Get off your asses and do something!” Nagin fumed. “Let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country!”
When Air Force One finally landed in the Gulf Coast on Friday, Bush strolled through a Biloxi, Miss., neighborhood where homes had literally been washed off their concrete slabs by Katrina’s storm surge. Bush shone in these moments, approaching total strangers on the street, offering them hugs and vowing to offer whatever federal help he could to get them back on their feet. At one point, two sobbing young black women ran up to him for help. They had lost everything and needed clothes for themselves and their family.
From there, we flew on to New Orleans, our Chinook helicopter flying parallel with Marine One, allowing photographers to capture an image of Bush in his presidential helicopter surveying the Gulf Coast. Soon, the hazy skyline of New Orleans came into view, and through the dusty window of our helicopter, we could see columns of smoke billowing from various fires that were burning throughout the city.
As we moved inland over Lake Pontchartrain, getting closer and closer to the heart of New Orleans, the grid of the city began to take on an otherworldly glow. I quickly realized it was the sun reflecting off the flooded streets. The water seemed to spread without end. We eventually landed at the New Orleans airport, where we could see military aircraft on the other side of the facility ready to evacuate storm refugees.
We were supposed to be at the airport for only a few minutes as Bush picked up Blanco and Nagin to accompany him on an aerial tour of New Orleans. Instead, they all climbed the steps into Air Force One, where they met with other lawmakers from the region — including then-Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., and Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R. La. — in their first face-to-face meeting about hurricane response.
Later, a person at the meeting told me the confab was as blunt and heated as it could be “without the Secret Service getting involved.” One by one, everyone in the group ticked off their complaints to Bush. In response, the president repeatedly turned to nearby aides and ordered, “Fix it.” The most fraught moment came as the group bickered over the question of “who’s in charge.” Nagin, who had taken his first shower in days using Bush’s private facilities on the aircraft, slammed his hand down on the table, demanding that Blanco and Bush coordinate. The group emerged from the plane looking tense and angry as they boarded helicopters for a tour of the city.
A few hours later, after we had stared into the waters ourselves, Bush was back at the airport, where he gave a brief statement. “I want you to know that I’m not going to forget what I’ve seen,” Bush said. “I understand that the devastation requires more than just one day’s attention. It’s going to require the attention of this country for a long period of time.”
White House aides had hoped that Bush’s remarks — and his promise to visit the region repeatedly — might quell some of the criticism over the initial slow response. That night, however, during a telethon sponsored by NBC to raise money for the victims of Katrina, rapper Kanye West bluntly declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
In “Decision Points,” released two years after he left the White House and five years after the storm, Bush called West’s remark “the worst moment of my presidency” — a striking remark considering the war, terrorist attacks and other drama that occurred during his time in office.
“I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich,” he wrote. “But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.”
In the final years of his presidency, Bush tried to make up for those lost days 10 years ago. He visited New Orleans more than a dozen times and championed federal assistance to rebuild the city — even when members of his own party questioned whether residents should even live in a region so vulnerable to storms like Katrina.
But in some ways, the Bush presidency never quite recovered.