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Shadow of Katrina hangs over America's response to disaster

The massive military deployment by the United States to the devastated city of Port-au-Prince continued apace yesterday with as many as 10,000 personnel expected to be in place either on land or on US Navy ships just off the coast by tomorrow morning, according to the Pentagon.

Reacting swiftly to the wrenching humanitarian crisis in Haiti has become a top priority for President Barack Obama, who has made public pronouncements vowing fast and generous assistance every day since the earthquake struck the Caribbean nation.

While Mr Obama has repeatedly emphasised the moral imperative of helping to mitigate the misery of so close a neighbour, he cannot afford to be seen bungling this crisis in the way his predecessor, George W Bush, did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

The bipartisan appointment of both Mr Bush and former president Bill Clinton to co-chair the US relief effort may have startled some because of the former's association with the Katrina debacle. But the involvement of Mr Bush may have given pause to many in Haiti for a different reason: lingering resentment that perceived US intrusions in its political affairs occurred most recently when he was in the White House.

Washington will never say it, but guilt over decades of mishandled relations with Haiti could also be a factor in the Obama administration's determination to do the right thing now. The close concert that should exist between two countries that were the first in their hemisphere to gain independence from their colonial masters has never been quite that.

Nobody knows more about the fickleness of American friendship than Haiti's former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. While his supporters accused George Bush Snr of encouraging a coup against him in 1991, it was Clinton who supported his return to power three years later. Then in 2004 after political protests erupted against Aristide, he fled to South Africa. The Bush White House denied that it sat back as it happened.

Now American boots are on Haitian soil again – for the fourth time in 95 years. But America's interest this time is humanitarian. A hundred US paratroopers were already in the port city by Friday helping to distribute food, water and medicines, assisted by a fleet of 19 helicopters.

Nor will the deployment end when all 10,000 are there tomorrow. "We have much more support on the way. Our priority is getting relief out to the needy people," Lieutenant-General Ken Keen, deputy commander of the US Southern Command, said. The Pentagon has permission from Cuba to fly through usually restricted airspace.

The stakes for the White House remain high. "The United States is seen in the world as the first responder to this kind of humanitarian crisis, and it has echoes – inappropriate echoes, to be sure – of Hurricane Katrina," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "Can we get there fast enough? There's a risk there for the President."

And while the US has made no secret that a main priority is also to evacuate American citizens in the country, the administration cannot risk being seen to be putting the lives of the Haitian people second.

In Washington there is no mistaking that Mr Obama is moved by the images reaching him of the tragedy. The Wall Street Journal put voice to the sentiment, arguing – with perhaps a touch of bombast – that the US response so far was "a fresh reminder that the reach of America's power coincides with the reach of its goodness".