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Gulf oil spill: Katrina on Obama administration's mind

May 2, 2010 |  5:43 pm

Shortly after President Obama finished a quick, tough-talking trip to Louisiana on Sunday, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was asked by reporters if Obama is mindful of the comparisons being made between the administration’s response to the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Bush administration’s much-maligned reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.


In an illustration of the administration’s tightrope dilemma whenever the ghosts of Katrina are invoked, Gibbs both rejected and embraced the comparison.


"Other than the geography, I don't see how” the two disasters are similar, Gibbs said. Then he added: "I'm happy to compare the response."


Publicly, White House officials have challenged most attempts to equate Katrina and the oil spill, aggressively working to deflect the accusations of government ineptitude that dogged President Bush after the hurricane.


But behind the scenes, Katrina weighed heavily on the minds of the Obama officials who raced to Louisiana after learning of the rig explosion last month.


“From the beginning,” said David Hayes, the deputy Interior secretary, who was among the first Washington officials to respond to the accident, “we didn’t want this to be a Katrina episode, in terms of lack of coordination and help.”


Asked directly about the parallels in a press briefing Saturday, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security John Brennan said, “One of the things that the president said very early on is that he wants to be aggressive and proactive and not wait for things to happen, but to anticipate them.... Clearly there are some lessons from Katrina, and adjustments in the federal government as a result of them.”


Administration officials had repeatedly “war-gamed” responding to Katrina-style disasters over the last year, including a mock oil spill drill in March.


Hayes said the drills prepared him to move immediately when he learned of the rig explosion at 8 a.m. on April 20, hours after it occurred. By 11:30, he and Interior colleagues were flying to Louisiana.


They didn’t have time to pack, so the crew bought spare underwear at a local K-Mart.


Hayes set up shop at a government command center with a direct feed to the BP response center in Houston. His boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, called nearly hourly for updates.


“We just went,” Hayes said in a phone interview. “We didn’t realize the significance of it [initially], but we saw the potential significance.”


The Katrina experience is well-imprinted on the man the administration tapped Saturday to lead the federal response to the spill: Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, who stepped in to lead the Bush administration’s embattled Katrina response in September 2005.


The two disasters differ vastly in nature and in response, Allen said in an interview. After the rig explosion, the Coast Guard spent the early days on a massive search-and-rescue operation, then pivoted to coastal defense and attempted to stop the leak from the wellhead.


“We have a failure of critical infrastructure at 5,000 under the ocean,” Allen said. “That’s the only comparison to Katrina, when we had failure of critical infrastructure everywhere on land.”


--Jim Tankersley, in Washington