Mining Roves Katrina Legacy

Rove was the man President Bush quietly put in charge of overseeing the administration’s response plan, though he had no expertise in homeland security or disaster relief

Amanda Terkel

Karl Rove isn’t called a mastermind” for nothing. He announced his resignation at the perfect time – right before the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

The media talked about his role in the CIA leak investigation, the U.S. attorney scandal, GOP election victories (and failures), and the Iraq war–all important topics. But they largely ignored his management of the administration’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

We all remember Brownie,” the incomprehensibly incompetent FEMA director Michael Brown, who had no idea evacuees were using the New Orleans convention center as an evacuation shelter. But Rove was the man President Bush quietly put in charge of overseeing the administration’s response plan. Rove had no expertise in homeland security or disaster relief. His role was to make sure that the reconstruction efforts enhanced Bush’s political image. 

By almost all accounts, Rove failed. One of the most memorable images from Hurricane Katrina is Bush looking out the window of Air Force One at the Gulf Coast destruction below, symbolizing an out-of-touch commander-in-chief who waited two days after Katrina struck before cutting short his vacation. Rove used Katrina to push the administration’s failed ideologies on the Gulf Coast, advocating segregated schools, reduced pay for low-wage reconstruction workers, and limited government health care. Political allies received large no-bid contracts. Americans were outraged. A CBS News poll six months after the hurricane found that just32 percent of the public approved of the way Bush handled the disaster. 

The one area in which Rove succeeded was the politicization of the government’s response to national tragedies. This week, current FEMA head R. David Paulson, promised, I do not see this country allowing another Katrina-type event.” But that type of event – and Rove’s politicization – is playing out right now, in Utah, at collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine. 

The political crony overseeing the government’s response is Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) head Richard Stickler, who spent 30 years as a coal company manager with Beth Energy. The Senate twice rejected Stickler’s nomination because the mines he managed incurred injury rates double the national average,” so he had to rely on a 2006 recess appointment by Bush. 

Like both Brownie and Rove, Stickler has been tragically inept at leading a crisis. By law, MSHA is supposed to be in charge of managing the Utah mine tragedy. But Stickler largely stepped aside and allowed the mine’s owner, Bob Murray, to control the disaster. It took MSHA at least two days to gain public control of the situation. In an Aug. 7 press briefing, Murray used a media appearance to criticize global warming proponents, and only later emphasized that his heart and his priorities are with the trapped miners and their families.” Many experts have also questioned why MSHA allowed anyone, including rescuers, into the still-dangerous mine.”

Throughout his administration, Bush has allowed political considerations to outweigh safety concerns about mining. According to a 2006 AFL-CIO analysis, the Bush administration has cut 170 positions from MSHA. It has also decreased major fines for safety violations, and in many cases, has failed to collect any fines at all. Instead, Bush appointed former coal industry officials like Stickler and J. Steven Griles, the Deputy Interior Secretary who was recently sentenced to 10 months in prison in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Additionally, the coal industry has donated approximately $10.6 million to Republicans since the 2000 election cycle.

After the Sago mine disaster last year in West Virginia, which killed 12 workers, Bush promised, We’ll do everything possible to prevent accidents.” Less than a year later, more miners are dead because of lax regulations and a mismanaged response. There’s no reason to believe that the federal government is more able to prevent another Katrina-type tragedy.

Rove thinks he is lucky. The media have already turned their attention away from him and back to stories about whether Hillary is tough enough, Barack is experienced enough, and Lindsay Lohan is sober enough. But with the anniversary of Katrina and the tragic Crandall Canyon mine collapse, attention – and outrage – should be focused on Rove’s dangerous legacy one last time.

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Amanda Terkel is Deputy Director of Research at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and Deputy Editor of the blog ThinkProgress​.org.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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