With Katrina comparisons inevitable, Obama plans oil spill visit

Experts say the brunt of criticism for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should fall on BP, the British oil giant. But President Obama's decision to visit the area soon is an indicator of potential political fall-out from what some say was a slow federal response.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama gestures during a statement on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday. Obama now plans to visit the oil spill.
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President Obama will visit the developing oil spill disaster in Louisiana in the next 48 hours to show his command of a situation that threatens the economy and ecology of the Gulf Coast.

British Petroleum, which was leasing the Deepwater Horizon oil rig to poke the Mississippi Canyon for deepwater oil deposits, "is ultimately responsible under the law for paying the costs of response and cleanup operations" for the Jamaica-sized oil spill now sloshing up against the US Gulf Coast, Obama said last week.

But even as public pressure stepped up on the oil giant for failures to take greater safety precautions and for overestimating its ability to contain a major blowout, the Obama administration also moved to contain what some described as a "sense of déjà vu all over again" among Americans as federal response once again seemed overwhelmed by a major disaster.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

After the White House said Friday the President will stick to his weekend plans, the sudden decision to travel to the Gulf is an acknowledgement that natural disasters are historically a key indicator of presidential leadership.

"You can see how people are putting a spin on this, calling it a very serious situation, but they won't use the word disaster," says Steven Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.. "Yes, they don't want people to panic, but [it also] adds to the perception that our government … could care less about the American public."

The Deepwater Horizon is President Obama's first major domestic disaster, and the stakes are high as the spill threatens the fragile ecology and economy of the Gulf Coast. To be sure, Obama hasn't had a "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie!" moment that came to define the Bush administration’s outwardly out-of-touch response to hurricane Katrina.

(Bush visited the disaster zone five days after Katrina hit. If Obama arrives in Louisiana on Sunday, nine days will have passed since the Coast Guard announced the leak.)

Republicans in Congress have so far stayed criticisms of the White House response. And so far, the administration has pushed back hard against all such comparisons from the media.

"I guess I'd want to remember that 1,800 – more than 1,800 people died in Katrina," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "We were there ... right after the incident happened," he continued, referring to the oil spill. "This notion that somehow we're playing catch-up is badly uninformed."

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Indeed, the federal response is now unprecedented, says Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen.

Nearly 2,000 federal personnel, added to an army of BP workers, as well as a growing volunteer corps, and over 300 vessels are now fighting the spill. Bad weather and unforeseen complications with a so-called blow-out preventer at nearly mile under the Gulf have thrown wrenches into well-laid plans.

"This is not Katrina yet," Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University, tells Reuters. "While terrible, the oil spill does not equal the kind of human suffering that was seen in New Orleans. This is something (Obama) must respond to and improve his plan, but a distinction must be made."

But analysis of the spill time line also shows that it took a week after the Deepwater Horizon sank on March 22 for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to declare the spill "of national significance," which allows the administration to utilize the full resources of the US government to help.

Criticism also intensified on the decision by the federal response commander, Rear Adm. Mary Landry, for relying on BP's estimates of the spill, which increased five-fold over the weekend. One oceanographer now estimates that the actual flow of oil may be another five times greater than the current estimate, up to 25,000 barrels of oil a day, which would mean 9 million gallons have already flowed out. The Exxon Valdez spilled about 11 million gallons.

"[Government] officials initially seemed to underestimate the threat of a leak, just as BP did last year when it told the government such an event was highly unlikely," the New York Times writes.
In many ways, the two disasters are very different. But there are also key similarities. While Katrina is often referred to as a natural disaster, a key cause of the flooding of New Orleans was the Army Corps of Engineers' interference with the navigation waterways, as a federal judge found last year.

The Deepwater Horizon accident involved a private company that had assured the government that not only was its drill rig safe, but that the company could adequately handle a spill much larger than the one currently leaking into the Gulf.

Still, Prof. Picou says both disasters are examples of "engineered catastrophes" that involved government regulators making assessments about low-risk, but potentially high-consequence events.

For a sitting president, the fall-out from such decisions provide opportunities both to rise to the occasion, or to stumble.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

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