The hurricane that drowned New Orleans and cast George W. Bush as out of touch swept across the Gulf Coast nearly five years ago.
Now, as oil laps ashore in the very same region, local officials are asking: Is there another government-Gulf Coast disconnect? Is BP's oil spill becoming this president's Katrina?
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Frustrated Gulf Coast residents say they understand that only BP can plug the leak. But they want to know why the federal government didn't act faster to stop the oil from reaching shore, why BP hasn't been forced to skim more oil from the surface and why their request hasn't been approved to build new barrier islands to help keep the oil at bay.
The Obama administration's response is "dysfunctional, there's no chain of command, no one's in charge," says Parish President Billy Nungesser in Plaquemines, La.
The public isn't impressed either.
A new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds that six out of 10 adults say the federal government is doing a "poor" or "very poor" job handling the spill. A majority - 53% - say the same about Obama.
And 50% of those polled say protecting the environment now should be a higher priority than promoting economic growth. Those choosing the economy: 43%.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the administration has been waging an "all-out, all-hands-on-deck battle to protect the Gulf Coast" and ensure that the British energy giant responsible for the spill cleans it up.
Senior White House adviser David Axelrod says the government is "doing everything conceivable" to limit the damage. "The Katrina analogy suggests that we didn't or haven't recognized from the beginning the profound nature of this problem, and that is just flat out wrong," he says. "Can we do better? You should always strive to do better."
BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, however, conceded Wednesday on NBC's Today show that his company has "let people down" by allowing the oil to reach delicate marshland and shoreline. "We are going to redouble our efforts," he promised.
A range of critics is demanding to know why the federal government hasn't already forced BP to do better - or just taken over. "The response to the oil coming ashore should be federalized and put in the hands of professional emergency managers and not oil companies," says Deano Bonano, homeland security chief in Jefferson Parish, La.
Comparisons to Katrina are limited: More than 1,800 people died when the storm hit and flooded the Gulf Coast in August 2005; 11 men died on the Deepwater Horizon rig when an explosion ruptured the well on April 20.
In both cases, however, local residents complained about what they say is an anemic response from Washington. "The response to this," Nungesser says, "has been worse than Katrina."
The White House, citing a 1990 law that requires oil companies to clean up their messes, says the government is offering help and overseeing the effort - but they're insistent that the cleanup is BP's responsibility.
The oil company is taking the brunt of the blame. The new poll of 1,049 adults, taken Monday and Tuesday, finds more than seven in 10 people say BP is doing a poor job. The survey has a margin of error of +/-4 percentage points.
Democratic strategist James Carville, who lives in New Orleans, and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., are among the critics who acknowledge that the government doesn't have the technological know-how to plug the well and stop the gusher. They contend, however, that the administration has resources - oil-catching booms, manpower, planes and boats, barges and skimmers - that can collect and clean up the oil. Such moves would limit the damage to a fragile ecosystem that supports a way of life for many, including those working in the $2.4 billion seafood industry.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says the government is limited by the Oil Pollution Act, passed in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the Alaskan coast. Peppered with questions at a recent news briefing about whether the government couldn't simply "federalize" the response and take over from BP, Gibbs said, "No."
Mindful of the frustration, however, the White House is taking a more aggressive approach. On Wednesday, Obama spoke about the spill during an event on the economy in Fremont, Calif. "Let me reiterate," he said. "We will not rest until this well is shut, the environment is repaired and the cleanup is complete."
Today for the first time in 10 months, he will hold a full-fledged news conference. On Friday, he will head back to Louisiana, his second trip this month to inspect the damaged area.
Scalise says Obama's increased engagement is overdue. "We don't need a finger-pointer-in-chief," he says. "We need a quarterback on the field."
Angry residents push back
The White House has sent out memos to the news media outlining the government-wide response to the spill from the start. Lengthy e-mails outlining everything from the number of Small Business Administration loans approved for Gulf Coast businesses hurt by the spill to the phone number to report "oiled wildlife" have been issued daily, detailing all the steps federal agencies and BP have taken to try to mitigate the ecological damage.
Wednesday's memo says about 1,300 vessels and dozens of aircraft have been shipped to the Gulf Coast, along with more than 1.85 million feet of the containment boom that helps stop oil from getting to shore and about 840,000 gallons of dispersant used to break up the slicks.
Angry Gulf Coast residents are pushing back, much as they did post-Katrina, when Washington officials said they had the situation in hand. Now those in the region say there's a disconnect between what the White House says is happening on the ground and what they see.
In Louisiana, officials say the response has been bogged down in bureaucracy, hobbled by rules and procedures that hamper decision-making. Responders also have lacked equipment, they say, even as oil has invaded marshes and beaches.
Just getting enough oil-stopping boom has been a problem, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal says.
State officials three weeks ago requested 5 million feet of boom from the Coast Guard, he says. As of Monday, only 815,000 feet of it had been delivered and 680,000 feet set up in the water, he says. Requests for more boom or other oil-fighting equipment are often routed to a BP subcontractor for approval, then sent through two command centers, which Jindal says delays Coast Guard approval for up to two days.
"We don't have 24 to 48 hours," the governor says. "This oil is moving too quickly."
Another Jindal complaint: a slow government response to his state's proposal to build a 94-mile-long string of sand berms across Louisiana's coast to keep the oil at bay.
The $350 million barrier plan was hatched by Plaquemines Parish officials shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as a way to keep out future storm surges and could work equally well to block out the oil, says P.J. Hahn, director of coastal management for the parish.
The plan would take four to six months to complete, but 12 dredges working simultaneously on the project would bring relief to coastal marshes almost immediately, says Nungesser, the Plaquemines president.
On May 11, Louisiana requested an emergency permit for the plan from the Army Corps of Engineers that would bypass lengthy environmental impact reviews. Corps and Coast Guard officials have voiced concerns, and the matter is still under review.
"We understand the importance and significance of this emergency permit request, and it is a top priority," the Army Corps said in a statement.
Last week, Nungesser says, he and his staff discovered globs of black oil seeping into marshes near Venice. He says they alerted officials at the BP/Coast Guard command center, who dispatched a team to fight off the oil - five days later.
"There's definitely some confusion about who's in charge," says G. Paul Kemp, a coastal ecologist with the National Audubon Society. "We hear from shrimpers that they're under contract (to help) but they're not, they don't know what they're supposed to be doing or whether they're going to be doing anything, and this is at a time when it would seem we need pretty much everybody working round the clock on this."
In other instances, locals have taken matters into their own hands.
On Saturday, after two days of begging BP for help in fending off an approaching tentacle of oil, officials in Jefferson Parish commandeered about 50 idle boats that had been hired by the oil giant and began cleaning a local bay themselves, Bonano says.
"Numerous times we told them we had oil in a certain location and they said they had skimmers in that location," Bonano says. "We sent up a helicopter and there was nothing there."
A 'significant' PR problem
Those kinds of stories have prompted calls by environmentalists such as David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for the government to take over the response from BP.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who served in the Bush administration but had left office before Katrina hit, says the White House ought to give the Coast Guard "carte blanche" to run the show along the Gulf Coast and summon whatever it needs to get the cleanup done - from the private sector, from the Navy, from anywhere it can. "It's better to overextend yourself," he says, when it's not clear just how bad the damage will be in a crisis.
Instead, the Obama administration "has been slow off the mark," Ridge says, and now the White House is facing a "significant" public relations problem.
Gibbs says the government has provided considerable expertise and other assistance; named Thad Allen, who retired as commandant of the Coast Guard on Tuesday, as the government's incident commander; and "pushed relentlessly for BP to do what is necessary to contain what is leaking."
Pettit, an NRDC lawyer, says another law trumps the 1990 oil pollution law and gives the government sweeping authority to respond. He says that under the Clean Water Act, the nation's primary law dealing with polluted water, the president "shall direct" efforts to clean up if a discharge of oil "poses a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United states."
"The Coast Guard has the right to run the entire operation," Pettit says. "They haven't chosen to. Why not?"
Allen, the administration's point person in the Gulf, says that's just what he's doing as he directs BP's clean-up efforts. "If I need to, I call Tony Hayward myself," Allen says of the company's CEO. "They're the responsible party, but we have the authority to direct."
He says it wouldn't make sense to push BP aside and take over completely. "Well, to push BP out of the way would raise the question: to replace them with what?"
'An absolute outrage' any oil has come ashore
Tom Copeland, who helped lead an impromptu effort by Alaskan fishermen in 1989 to attack the Exxon Valdez spill, has an idea.
Copeland says an effective oil-skimming armada is expensive and requires a huge infrastructure of barges to haul away the toxic goo but can make a significant dent in even a giant slick.
"With a spill like this and the good weather that we've had, it's an absolute outrage that any oil has been allowed to come ashore," he says .
Copeland says he equipped his fishing boat with a vacuum pump from a sewage hauling truck, which sucked up thousands of gallons of oil a day. Hundreds of boats could be similarly outfitted and on the Gulf within days, he says. Yet Copeland contends that it's not BP's interest to collect large quantities of oil after a spill, since that would require expensive disposal as a toxic waste.
BP has hired about 275 boats to clean up the oil since last month's explosion, says company spokesman Graham MacEwen. He called the dispute over the idle boats in Jefferson Parish a "misunderstanding" and says the company is committed to doing everything possible to pick up oil.
Some people give BP credit - though not for its cleanup efforts. A.J. Fabre, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, praises the company for covering industry losses. Last week, Fabre says, the company gave shrimpers $5,000 checks.
As of Tuesday, BP said 25,227 economic claims had been opened and it had paid out $29.4 million to those affected by the spill. The company said no claims have been denied.
"BP is the only oil company that's ever stepped forward and opened their checkbooks," says Fabre, a shrimper for 40 years. "You just come in with your tax statements and your trip tickets and they cut you a check. That's unheard of."
Other business owners, however, are feeling the sting. Floyd Lasseigne, a fourth-generation Grand Isle, La., oyster fisherman and shrimper, is worried about how he's going to pay his annual $5,000 house insurance payment in late June now that he's out of work.
He puts most of the blame on BP but says the government should do more. "It's way too slow of a response," he says. "That oil is still pouring in."
Besides fishing, Grand Isle survives on revenue from the tourists that pour into town for each of the 23 fishing rodeos held throughout the year. The first one, the Speckled Trout Rodeo, kicks off this Memorial Day weekend. But with the fishing grounds closed, it's unclear whether people will come just for the party.
Arthur Bradberry, owner of Artie's Sports Bar, says his business has dropped more than half since the spill began.
"They're all running around here and no one seems to know what's going on," he says of the federal and BP officials. "They should've done more from the start. They waited too late. Now, of course, they all want to blame each other."
Contributing: Peter Eisler and Donna Leinwand