Condoleezza Rice Memoir: Hurricane Katrina's Racially-Charged Disaster

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice loads supplies onto a truck in Bayou La Batre, Al. in September 2005, before going to visit areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Rob Carr / AP Photo

I’d been to forty-six countries and traveled 171,628 miles in nine months. I just wanted a vacation and took my annual trip to the Greenbrier, but it wasn’t much of a vacation, given the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which kept me on the phone day and night. I did, though, pick up a golf club seriously for the first time that summer when my cousin’s husband, a very good golfer, insisted that Lativia and I learn to play. I loved it, especially just being outside, and vowed to keep the ball moving forward while I was in Washington. Really learning to play would have to await my return to California. Fortunately, I would find Alan Burton, the pro at Andrews Air Force Base, who’d help me learn the game far faster than I ever thought possible. I’ll always remember that August for discovering a new passion, not for the vacation, which signaled how hard it would be to get away as secretary of state.

Since any opportunity to break away from the daily grind was appealing, when friends asked if I’d like to join them in New York for the US Open tennis championships the last few days in August, I readily agreed. As I’d done a couple of years before, I planned to spend a few days in New York City, take in a show, shop, and then go out to Arthur Ashe Stadium for the championships. Mariann Byerwalter and Randy Bean, two of my closest friends from California, were coming out to join me.

I didn’t think much about the dire warnings of an approaching hurricane called Katrina. My under secretary for management, Henrietta Fore, was on top of the State Department issues. The State Department had a passport office in New Orleans, and we made backup arrangements for our people in Houston. I attended a Homeland Security principals meeting on Thursday, August 30, and returned to the State Department to check once more on plans for securing our offices in the Gulf of Mexico. Then I flew to New York.

That evening, upon arriving at the Palace Hotel, I flipped on the television. Indeed, the hurricane had hit New Orleans. I called Henrietta, who said that the main issue was making sure our people were safe. She’d also convened a departmental task force because offers of foreign assistance were pouring in. I called Secretary of Homeland Security Mike Chertoff, inquiring if there was anything I could do. “It’s pretty bad,” he said. We discussed the question of foreign help briefly, but Mike was clearly in a hurry. He said he’d call if he needed me. I hung up, got dressed, and went to see Spamalot.

The next morning, I went shopping at the Ferragamo shoe store down the block from my hotel, returned to the Palace to await Randy and Mariann’s arrival, and again turned on the television. The airwaves were filled with devastating pictures from New Orleans. And the faces of most of the people in distress were black. I knew right away that I should never have left Washington. I called my chief of staff, Brian Gunderson. “I’m coming home,” I said.

“Yeah. You’d better do that,” he answered.

Then I called the President. “Mr. President, I’m coming back. I don’t know how much I can do, but we clearly have a race problem,” I said.

“Yeah. Why don’t you come on back?” he answered.

I actually hadn’t expected that from the President. That’s odd, I thought. He’d been so insistent that I go and get some rest. He’s really worried. “Maybe I can go to Houston to represent you,” I said.

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“Well, just come on back, and we can talk about it then,” he replied.

A few minutes later, my senior advisor, Jim Wilkinson, walked into my suite. “Boss, I should have seen this coming,” he said. He showed me the day’s Drudge Report headline on the Web: “Eyewitness: Sec of State Condi Rice laughs it up at ‘Spamalot’ while Gulf Coast lays in tatter.” “Get a plane up here to take me home,” I said. I called Mariann and Randy and apologized and then sat there kicking myself for having been so tone-deaf. I wasn’t just the secretary of state with responsibility for foreign affairs; I was the highest-ranking black in the administration and a key advisor to the President. What had I been thinking?

When we landed in Washington, I went directly to the State Department, where Henrietta had convened the members of the task force. We needed to be gracious in accepting the many offers that were coming in from around the world, touching expressions of concern such as the $100,000 donation from Afghanistan. Self-sufficiency was one thing; haughtiness was quite another.

When we were asked by the press about aid from foreign countries, Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, responded, “Secretary Rice, after consulting with the White House, has made it clear that we will accept all offers of foreign assistance. Anything that can be of help to alleviate the difficult situation, the tragic situation of the people of the area affected by Hurricane Katrina will be accepted.” Forty-four countries would eventually send aid, some of it useful and some of it not. But the principle was the important thing; the United States of America would not close its doors to the generosity and good wishes gushing forth from around the world.

On the Friday morning after my return to Washington, the President convened the National Security Council. It reminded me just a little of the days in the aftermath of 9/11. The President was clearly distressed by the inability of the federal government to deal with the unfolding chaos. We focused on the horrible scene at the Superdome, where order had completely broken down. The Defense Department seemed uncertain of the laws concerning the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which did not allow active-duty military to carry out law enforcement within the United States.

Don opined that the American people would be shocked to see the military in the street and might react badly. I’d been silent in the meeting but now decided to speak up. “Mr. President, the American people want to see something different in the streets. They need to believe that their government is on top of this. They’ll welcome the sight of the military.” Josh Bolten, now chief of staff, supported the point. Indeed, the face of the reestablishment of order would become Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, a native of Louisiana, who took command of military relief efforts under Joint Task Force Katrina. It was a godsend that he was also black.

The President still had a serious race issue, however. Many self-described black leaders were accusing him of all manner of venality and prejudice because of the impact the hurricane had on the African American population. People who had means, including several of my friends and relatives of friends, had evacuated as the hurricane approached. Those left behind were the least capable of helping themselves. It was a sad picture with an overwhelmingly black face.

I asked the President if we could speak alone after the meeting, and I proposed two things. I would go see the displaced in Houston (the travel of a high-ranking official to New Orleans might disrupt the relief efforts) to show the flag for the administration as well as to express my personal concern for the people affected. I would also reach out to the new president of the NAACP, Bruce Gordon, and suggest a meeting between the President and him. Bruce could not have been more gracious and, despite some criticism, made the trip to the White House to sit down with the President. Later, the administration would also reach out to Donna Brazile, an influential Democratic activist, who was a native of New Orleans and who to this day acknowledges the President’s generosity toward her hometown.

We ultimately decided that I’d go to Mobile in my home state of Alabama instead of Houston. It was a Sunday, so I’d have to go to church before visiting the victims of the hurricane. I attended the 10:30 a.m. service at the Pilgrim Rest AME Zion Church, a black Methodist church where the preacher had to cut his sermon short due to my presence. I wanted to sink underneath the pew as he repeatedly informed the congregation that he had to move things along because “the secretary has to get out of here in two hours.” I wasn’t sure how I’d be received, but the parishioners were wonderful, responding with an enthusiastic amen to my entreaty that “The Lord is going to come on time—if we just wait.” A minister’s daughter has a genetic disposition to know what to say in church.

My visit concluded in Mobile, consoling Southeast Asian shrimpers who’d lost everything. The cases of these immigrants were particularly sad. They had left in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and started new lives, only to see their small businesses wiped out by Katrina.

There’s never much opportunity at the time to reflect on a crisis like Katrina. In retrospect, the hurricane’s aftermath was the first in a spiral of negative events that would almost engulf the Bush presidency. Clearly the response of the federal government was slower than the President himself wanted it to be, and there were many missteps, both in perception and in reality. I’m still mad at myself for only belatedly understanding my own role and responsibilities in the crisis.

Yet for me the lingering wound of Katrina is that some used the explosive “race card” to paint the President as a prejudiced, uncaring man. It was so unfair, cynical, and irresponsible. At the end of my visit to Mobile, I told the press, “Nobody, especially the President, would have left people unattended on the basis of race.” I am to this day appalled that it was necessary to say it.

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