Katrina vs. the Spill: Useful Comparison?

A FEMA trailer in Venice, La., last month. Chris Bickford / The New York Times-Redux

For its impact on Louisiana residents and the widespread criticism of the federal response, the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill inevitably draws comparisons to Hurricane Katrina. The parallels only intensified as Tropical Storm Alex slammed the gulf and halted BP’s containment effort and The New York Times reported that cleanup workers were being housed in formaldehyde-tainted trailers once provided to hapless Katrina refugees.

The government banned the trailers from being used as long-term homes, then sold them in 2006, the Times reported. Now some cleanup contractors needing to house workers are buying them, even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency says they are not to be used for housing. “The price was right,” one of the contractors told the newspaper.  

The government’s bungling of Katrina is never far from President Obama’s mind; he has visited the gulf several times in an effort to avoid criticism that his predecessor faced.  

By many measures, Katrina looks like the worse disaster. The oil spill will certainly not take the same human toll as the hurricane, which caused around 1,500 deathsEleven workers were killed in BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling-rig accident, with several deaths also reported among response workers. In addition to the damage Katrina wrought, the hurricane itself triggered one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history, releasing a reported 6.5 million gallons in various locations along its path, not including what may have spilled from fuel tanks in submerged cars or sunken boats. There’s also Katrina’s price tag, which the National Hurricane Center estimated at $84 billion, the largest ever for a hurricane. The economic cost of the gulf spill remains to be seen, not to mention the price to the environment and all the life forms that live in the gulf—which contribute in various ways to the livelihoods and ways of life of many humans.

While we await the final toll of the spill, which is in day 73, Americans have shown levels of frustration similar to what happened after Katrina. On June 7 a poll showed that more Americans had a negative view of the federal response to the oil spill than had a negative view of the much-criticized Katrina response. Worse for the Obama administration, another poll released Wednesday asked responders to compare Obama’s handling of the oil spill with George W. Bush’s handling of Katrina, and nearly six in 10 people said Obama’s response was the same or worse than Bush’s. A poll of Louisiana residents released June 15 drew a similar conclusion. “Obama’s Katrina” isn’t a phrase the White House wants to hear, but it’s one that could gain traction if the polling continues in this vein.