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Katrina's Aftermath

Nation's Political Divide Is Highlighted

In New Mexico, the only thing people can agree on is that elected officials, from president to mayor, failed in responding to disaster.

September 12, 2005|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

ALBUQUERQUE — As Patricia Montoya sat in a small rock garden outside the upscale Cottonwood Mall, she considered a frightening thought.

"If this disaster happened in the United States, you know, with just water, what's going to happen if the terrorists hit us again?" she asked. "I don't think we learned anything from 9/11."

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have rattled the nation like nothing since those four hijacked airliners plunged out of a clear blue sky four years ago Sunday.

Both events prompted an outpouring of compassion, which has already yielded well over half a billion dollars in private donations to hurricane victims.

But unlike the unifying Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the damage wrought by nature -- and compounded, in the eyes of many, by a dithering government response -- has done little to bridge the nation's political divisions. In this politically telling place, partisanship runs jagged and deep.

Looking at the devastation on the Gulf Coast, critics of President Bush find validation for their worst beliefs.

"The hurricane created the mess, and I feel that Bush is responsible for the mess continuing to be one, because the earth-moving vehicles that should have been there to correct this problem are in Iraq," said Democrat Belinda Martorelli, 51, a clerk with New Mexico's motor vehicle department.

Defenders of the president are quick to blame state and local officials for the haphazard response to the disaster, and to criticize the president's critics.

"I think it's politically motivated, and that's what I hate to see," said Robert Mascarenas, a 59-year-old Republican who was leaving his job at Target with a bag of popcorn. "No one anticipated the devastation or strength of the hurricane. I think it just caught the whole system off guard."

The overarching sentiment, one shared by the left and the right, is that elected officials, from Bush to New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, fell down on the job, failing to fulfill their most basic responsibility: protecting the people they serve. The anger, frustration and contempt stand in marked contrast to the feeling of unity that flowed after Sept. 11, when many regarded their elected leaders with hope and expectation, rather than cynicism.

"With this whole new Cabinet" -- the Department of Homeland Security created after Sept. 11 -- "you'd think that they would plan better," said Montoya, a 58-year-old Democrat puffing a cigarette beneath a Palo Verde tree in the mall's shady rock oasis. "That's what scares me."

Upstairs, at the Big Train Cafe, Republican Jean Stewart let out a chuckle as dry as the desert air. "I wouldn't wait for government" if disaster struck, said the 60-year-old housewife and grandmother. "I'd be on my own."

New Mexico has long been a bellwether in national politics. Since statehood in 1912, it has a near-perfect record of going with the winner of the popular vote for president; the results in the last two elections, in particular, reflected the country's profound political divide. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore won New Mexico by a 365-vote margin -- a closer count than in Florida. In 2004, Bush carried the state by fewer than 6,000 votes.

In a series of sidewalk interviews, this city on the Rio Grande seemed once more to hold up a mirror to the nation, reflecting the political divisions in Washington and the partisan hostilities roiling the Internet and talk radio.

Bush critics blamed the president for the stumbling response to Katrina, tying the failure at least partly to the war in Iraq and pointing to the outsized suffering of African Americans and the poor.

"I wish we would have had more preparedness to help people here instead of being stretched thin in other places," said Democrat Anthony Boser, the 27-year-old manager of a Red Wing shoe store in the city's prosperous Paradise Hills neighborhood. Bush's policies, he said, have boosted "the people who have their offices on the top of a big building, and the people who drive Porsches and Rolls-Royces."

The president's defenders pointed fingers -- to the extent, they said, that you can blame anyone for an act of God -- at the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana, both Democrats. Where were the buses to evacuate those who couldn't flee on their own? Where was the plan to fix the levees before they burst and New Orleans was swamped? Some suggested the attacks on Bush reflected an attitude fostered by years of government giveaway programs.

"There's a mentality that people think that government should save everything, and it's not always the government's job," Alexandra Crelier, a 32-year-old airline employee, said as her little girl, Madison, played outside Target. "Because they're impoverished, they rely more on the government because that's how their sense of living is.... So maybe that's why the feeling is there should have been more done sooner."

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