As oil continues to spew forth from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion 40 miles off America's coastline, an increasing number of pundits and politicians are questioning President Barack Obama's decision-making in the wake of the spill. BP's recent "top kill" plan to stop the leak effectively sunk, and some have taken to calling the tragedy his Hurricane Katrina, citing a slow response time and bureaucratic finger-pointing, while others are saying it's even worse. Are either of those projections right?
Using five criteria, including the time it took to appear on-site, speediness of response, economic fallout and lives lost, The Root attempts to answer that question.
Having considered the numbers, one thing seems clear: In no way is the Gulf of Mexico spill "Obama's Katrina." In fact, to call it that is yet another blow to the thousands who suffered and died needlessly in the aftermath of the hurricane nearly five years ago. Not only are the death tolls and financial impacts vastly different, one must also remember that what happened in New Orleans was a government neglecting its citizens on multiple levels, whereas the BP tragedy was a private company's offshore failure. Whether Obama should have taken the reins from the oil company sooner is debatable; but that's about all that is. See if you agree after reading our side-by-side comparisons.
TIME BETWEEN DISASTER AND WHEN THE PRESIDENT WAS ON-SITE
Bush wins. It took 12 days for Obama to make it down to Louisiana after the oil rig explosion, a week longer than it took Bush to arrive in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
SPEEDINESS OF GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
Obama wins (although the scope of his initial response was more limited than Bush's).
Though Obama mobilized the Coast Guard, the Departments of Interior and Homeland Security, and the EPA within 24 hours of the rupture on April 20, that effort was more about containing the pollution, not stopping the flow. When it came to stemming the oil, the president's willingness to put so much faith in BP, which has tended not to have the public's best interest in mind, is frustrating, and definitely reminiscent of company man Bush's disastrous movement on Hurricane Katrina.
Though President Bush signed a $10.5 billion aid bill within four days of the hurricane coming aground on Aug. 29, 2005, it was, in many ways, too little too late. Despite several early warnings from experts that the levees surrounding New Orleans were eminently vulnerable, both local and federal governments neglected to provide necessary escape routes and support to the city's poorest residents. Initially, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin reportedly failed to dispatch the city's school buses on a mission to evacuate citizens. Gov. Kathleen Blanco didn't request supplementary help from National Guard troops until days after New Orleans was underwater. For his part, President Bush remained on vacation in Texas until a full day after Katrina had hit. When he did make it to Louisiana, he praised Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, saying he'd done a "heck of a job." People all around the region were starving, dehydrated, drowning and dying. In 2006, a congressional report on Hurricane Katrina relief deemed it a "national failure … at every level."
EFFECTIVENESS OF GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
Both presidents fail in this regard.
Assuming "effective" means putting an end to the spill, the government has been almost totally ineffective. Again, Obama has certainly been vigilant about the cleanup and conservation process, but stopping the leak—which should have been his first priority—was, for days, seemingly an afterthought. While the original deluge was flowing at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day, current estimates say that's now 12,000 barrels a day; already the Gulf disaster dwarfs 1989's 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, according to a variety of experts. Consequently, a new Gallup poll finds that more than half of those surveyed disagree with the president's handling of Deepwater Horizon. As the oil gushed for the 37th straight day on May 27, Obama told Americans, "In case you were wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility." Still, the problem remains that the U.S. government is simply not equipped to handle this disaster—quite an issue when BP isn't either.
Though government aid came criminally late following Katrina, government aid has yet to arrive at all to stop the Gulf leak, jeopardizing the homes and livelihood of tens of thousands of Americans. Why wasn't an independent team of engineers immediately dispatched to do what BP couldn't, and why was the oil giant given third and fourth chances? As it stands now, as BP's team readies yet another attempt to curb the oil, the Gulf is spoiled for years and the Coast Guard is flailing, asking for foreign nations to donate containing equipment. Sure, Obama is vowing criminal inquiries into the leak, but how about stopping the thing first?
Besides a cascade of errors prior to Hurricane Katrina's arrival, in the days and years following, government response remained insufficient. Fraud and wasteful spending saw tens of millions of dollars diverted from victims into projects like storing empty mobile homes at the cost of $250,000 per month. Once again, federal and local authorities were both complicit in the mishandling.
Bush takes the hit for this one. With oil still pouring out into the Gulf, it's too early to tell just how far the economic devastation from the BP spill will reach. But it's unlikely to rival the hundreds of billions required to address the damage due to Hurricane Katrina.
For now, a May 5 report from BBVA Compass, an Alabama-based bank, predicted $4.3 billion in losses, with the tourism and fishing industries taking the biggest hits. However, economist Nathaniel Karp, who helped author the BBVA study, says he'd predict a higher amount were he writing the report today. Attempts at cleaning and stopping the spill have cost BP $930 million as of May 28, a number that's sure to go up rapidly in the coming days. As of now, federal law mandates that oil companies can only be liable for $75 million per spill, but in response to the BP tragedy, Congress is currently trying to raise that limit to $10 billion.
Meanwhile, over the last month and a half, the company has lost $67 billion in market value.
In September 2005, a month after Katrina hit, West Virginia's Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research tried to estimate how much financial damage Hurricane Katrina had and would wreak throughout Louisiana and Mississippi. The sum it came up with was more than $150 billion, including commercial structure damages of $21 billion, commercial equipment damages of $36 billion and commercial revenue losses of $4.6 billion. By April 2006, the Bush administration had sought out more than $100 billion in funds for repairs.
Without a doubt, many more lives were lost on Bush's watch. As of August 2006, there were 1,464 people killed during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, and 135 still missing.
Eleven men died during Deepwater Horizon's initial explosion, and hundreds of animal species are now in jeopardy.
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.