September 14, 2005
I hate spending time in hospitals and nursing homes. I find them to be some of the most depressing places on earth.
Maybe that's why the stories of the sick and elderly who died, 45 in a New Orleans hospital and 34 in St. Rita's nursing home in the devastated St. Bernard Parish outside New Orleans, haunt me so.
You're already vulnerable and alone when suddenly you're beset by nature and betrayed by your government.
At St. Rita's, 34 seniors fought to live with what little strength they had as the lights went out and the water rose over their legs, over their shoulders, over their mouths.As Gardiner Harris wrote in The Times, the failed defenses included a table nailed against a window and a couch pushed against a door.
Several electric wheelchairs were gathered near the front entrance, maybe by patients who dreamed of evacuating.
Their drowned bodies were found swollen and unrecognizable a week later, as Mr. Harris reported, "draped over a wheelchair, wrapped in a shower curtain, lying on a floor in several inches of muck."
At Memorial Medical Center, victims also suffered in 100-degree heat and died, some while waiting to be rescued in the four days after Katrina hit.
As Louisiana's death toll spiked to 423 yesterday, the state charged St. Rita's owners with multiple counts of negligent homicide, accusing them of not responding to warnings about the hurricane. "In effect," State Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. said, "I think that their inactions resulted in the death of these people."
President Bush continued to try to spin his own inaction yesterday, but he may finally have reached a patch of reality beyond spin. Now he's the one drowning, unable to rescue himself by patting small black children on the head during photo-ops and making scripted attempts to appear engaged. He can keep going back down there, as he will again on Thursday when he gives a televised speech to the nation, but he can never compensate for his tragic inattention during days when so many lives could have been saved.
He made the ultimate sacrifice and admitted his administration had messed up, something he'd refused to do through all of the other screw-ups, from phantom W.M.D. and the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo to the miscalculations on the Iraq occupation and the insurgency, which will soon claim 2,000 young Americans.
How many places will be in shambles by the time the Bush crew leaves office?
Given that the Bush team has dealt with both gulf crises, Iraq and Katrina, with the same deadly mixture of arrogance and incompetence, and a refusal to face reality, it's frightening to think how it will handle the most demanding act of government domestic investment since the New Deal.
Even though we know W. likes to be in his bubble with his feather pillow, the stories this week are breathtaking about the lengths the White House staff had to go to in order to capture Incurious George's attention.
Newsweek reported that the reality of Katrina did not sink in for the president until days after the levees broke, turning New Orleans into a watery grave. It took a virtual intervention of his top aides to make W. watch the news about the worst natural disaster in a century. Dan Bartlett made a DVD of newscasts on the hurricane to show the president on Friday morning as he flew down to the Gulf Coast.
The aides were scared to tell the isolated president that he should cut short his vacation by a couple of days, Newsweek said, because he can be "cold and snappish in private." Mike Allen wrote in Time about one "youngish aide" who was so terrified about telling Mr. Bush he was wrong about something during the first term, he "had dry heaves" afterward.
The president had to be truly zoned out not to jump at the word "hurricane," given that he has always used his father's term as a reverse playbook and his father almost lost Florida in 1992 because of his slow-footed response to Hurricane Andrew. And W.'s chief of staff, Andy Card, was the White House transportation secretary the senior President Bush sent to the rescue after FEMA bungled that one.
W. has said he prefers to get his information straight up from aides, rather than filtered through newspapers or newscasts. But he surrounds himself with weak sisters who don't have the nerve to break bad news to him, or ideologues with agendas that require warping reality or chuckleheaded cronies like Brownie.
The president should stop haunting New Orleans, looking for that bullhorn moment. It's too late.