Paul Holmes

The White House will find little refuge from the errors it's made in response to Katrina

The White House will find little refuge from the errors it's made in response to Katrina

To: Scott McClellan
Re: The shame of New Orleans

I have to say, you've done a great job sticking to the "this is not the time to point fingers" line. But I'm not sure that will work so effectively in this instance, certainly not as well as it did when questions were raised about the warnings before 9/11. At some point, you're going to have to answer some of these questions, however much that goes against your instincts.

It's important to stick to the line that those people on TV "chose" not to evacuate. Some who don't buy into the culture of personal responsibility are going to complain that many people didn't have their own cars or the money to leave. You have to remind people that poverty is a choice - happily, not one your big donors have made.

In addition, some troublemakers are going to bring up that 2001 FEMA report warning that a hurricane strike on New Orleans was one of the three most likely disaster scenarios facing the US - the one you got just before cutting New Orleans flood control funding by 44%. Just fire the FEMA executive responsible for the report - the "shoot the messenger" strategy has worked consistently in the past - unless he's one of the many who left because morale disintegrated just after you downgraded FEMA from a Cabinet-level agency.

You might also encounter a little problem based on the interview the President gave to Diane Sawyer, specifically his comment that, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees," since almost every news show the day before Katrina hit explained that a breach was not only possible, but probable. Someone might even dig out quotes from the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune back in June 2004, just after the decision to cut federal funds for levee construction.

Obviously, you're going to have to find someone to blame for the inadequate briefing. I know you've gone through a lot of scapegoats over the past five years, but there must be someone left you can throw under the bus.

Now for the upside. You have an opportunity to push ahead with your plans to privatize your disaster management capabilities. And perhaps you should endorse The Wall Street Journal's idea that the first priority now should be to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the government to pay prevailing local wages in federal construction projects. (Do your partners at Halliburton have a disaster division?)

Finally, if the mother of one of those corpses floating face down in the Mississippi shows up outside the ranch during his next five-week vacation, could you please try to convince the President to this time take the five minutes out of his busy schedule to meet with her.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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