A Tale of Two Storms: Comparing Bush and Obama's Hurricane Response

How President Obama's handling of Superstorm Sandy compares to Bush's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina.


The contrast couldn't be much greater: two killer storms, two commanders in chief, two very different responses. President Obama has done well in managing the crisis caused by Hurricane Sandy so far, while President George W. Bush botched the job of handling Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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Obama and his Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have even drawn praise from Republicans such as Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, both prominent supporters of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney. Christie said, "The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit." McDonnell said the federal response was "incredibly fast and we're very grateful." He said Obama has been "direct and personal" in handing the crisis.

Obama got ahead of the curve from the start, cancelling campaign trips in order to stay in Washington to supervise the relief effort. He made sure the public knew he was in command by speaking to the nation directly as the storm intensified, and he and many surrogates have given frequent public updates about what was going on.

On Wednesday, Obama is scheduled to tour storm-damaged areas in New Jersey with Christie.

[GALLERY: Cleaning Up After the Superstorm]

In contrast, President George W. Bush and his administration seemed slow off the mark in their response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The powerful storm hit the Gulf Coast and New Orleans while Bush was on vacation at his Texas ranch, and his aides initially didn't keep him fully informed about the devastation and misery Katrina was causing.

By the time he found out--in a report by a senior aide--he already looked out of touch. He belatedly cut short his vacation, and the White House released a photograph of the president looking out a window of Air Force One at the devastation below, which only made Bush appear more distant from the calamity.

Later, Bush did visit a disaster-relief site and praised Michael Brown, his FEMA director, with the memorable sentence, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job." The people of New Orleans, who had been waiting desperately for aid, had a different, and far more negative view. Brown resigned shortly thereafter.

The Bush administration also tangled with then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleeen Blanco over who was responsible for the debacle of failing to evacuate people or deliver relief supplies in a timely way--in stark contrast to Obama's good relationship today with New Jersey's Governor Christie and Virginia's McDonnell.

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Aides admitted to me later that Bush never recovered his reputation as an effective crisis manager or a man of empathy after Katrina.

Plenty of things can still go wrong in the federal response to Sandy, but Obama plans to remain front and center in the relief efforts as Election Day appoaches. "The storm is not over yet," Obama said Tuesday afternoon on a visit to Red Cross headquarters in Washington. "We're going to continue to push as hard as we can" to help out.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.