Leading article: A disaster that will test Mr Bush and all US society

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The Independent Online

What happens next will be an extreme test of America's mettle and the administration's political will. There is no doubt President Bush had no choice but to cut short his holiday - although after five weeks at his ranch, this rather stretches the term "cutting short". To have Air Force One fly over the stricken area was a shrewd move, as it was for Mr Bush to speak on camera with his cabinet massed behind him. The image of solidarity lent additional seriousness to what Mr Bush described as one of the worst natural disasters in US history.

Once mobilised, the White House PR operation was impeccable, if a mite slow. The disaster relief effort, on the other hand, seems to have begun tardily and piecemeal, with the city and state authorities having to make the best of an impossible job with pitifully few resources. The state governor's initial recommendation that people pray was a less than adequate response for the head of the state administration, even in the religious south.

Granted, this catastrophe may be without precedent. There is probably no country in the world that would be equipped to evacuate a city of 400,000 inhabitants, the last 20 per cent in extreme conditions, and then provide for so many desperate, dispossessed people.

It must also be recognised that in the US, the onus is on the state authorities to request federal intervention, and local authorities have an interest in projecting an image of self-reliance. The failure of communications in New Orleans and the fact that the flooding followed the failure of the levees rather than the hurricane or the storm surge directly, may have given the authorities a false sense that the worst was over. Whether the fault lies at regional or national level, however, the federal emergency services and the military were late on the scene and initially too few in number.

In this situation, the police and others can hardly be blamed for saving the living rather than salvaging the dead. Nor yet for neglecting the looters. That the authorities were unable simultaneously to mount an extensive humanitarian operation and enforce order, however, is eerily reminiscent of what happened after the US conquest of Baghdad. There are surely lessons here.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina also poses searching questions about the nature of US society and about the priorities the current administration has set. Is a system where elected officials go so far down the administrative chain professional enough to deal with a major emergency? Does the widespread ownership and availability of firearms handicap the authorities in an emergency? What happens to the many uninsured in a country where people rely on private insurance for medical treatment? And what happens to the bereaved families of breadwinners who had no life insurance, or to those with homes or businesses that were uninsured?

George Bush's political credo favours self-reliance, small government, and modest tax-payer support for private and charitable endeavours to fill the gap. New Orleans will show whether that combination is sufficient to cope with a disaster on this scale. Mr Bush, for whom this 9/11 of a natural disaster has come just in time to distract attention from the growing mayhem in Iraq, does not have to face the electorate again. The Republican Party, to the extent that it espouses the Bush ethos, risks reaping the political whirlwind in his place.