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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
"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.