Hurricane preparations on the Gulf Coast are smooth. Gustav weakens.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 1 2008 5:17 AM

Gustaving Off Disaster

Hurricane Gustav is approaching the Gulf Coast after 2 million residents have fled for safer ground. The storm sped up but lost some power yesterday and was expected to hit land sometime during the day today. Gustav is the lead story in all the papers, and everyone draws a contrast to how smoothly the preparations appear to be going compared to the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The massive evacuation "appeared to be going smoothly," the Washington Post writes. "There was no sign that the disaster of 2005—when thousands were left stranded in misery for days and 1,600 people were killed, many of them elderly—would be repeated," says the New York Times. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's pronouncement Saturday that Gustav was "the storm of the century" appears now to be premature, but he still served up good quotes, now calling it "still a big, ugly storm," according to the Los Angeles Times.

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Authorities appeared to have learned lessons from the Katrina debacle. The NYT has a separate story inside on how much better FEMA is prepared as compared to 2005. The Army Corps of Engineers is upgrading the New Orleans levee system, which is already better than it was three years ago, but the renovation is only 25 percent finished and there are still vulnerabilities, the LAT finds. And local government is stepping up law enforcement to curtail looting. "We have double the police force, double the National Guard force that we had for Katrina," Nagin said, as quoted in the NYT, "and looters will go directly to jail." The paper drolly  adds, "It was not clear, however, how he planned to bypass the state's usual law enforcement procedures."

All the papers have color stories, too, on how the hurricane preparations look on the ground. A front-page dispatch in the NYT from a bus taking evacuees to Alabama suggests that while the evacuation process is better now than in 2005, it's still difficult and traumatic. The Post stays behind with some of the roughly 10,000 die-hards who refuse to leave New Orleans. "In my gut I feel this thing is really not as bad a hurricane," one told the paper. "I think this thing has been blown completely out of proportion for the sake of federal and local officials so they can save face for dropping the ball on Katrina."

Everyone notes that the Republican National Convention, starting today in St. Paul, Minn., is being scaled back considerably because of the hurricane. Only "essential" business would be conducted today, and speeches by President Bush and Vice President Cheney were cancelled.

The political effect of all this will be unclear. The Republicans lose a chance to amplify the buzz created by nominee John McCain's pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, but they gain the chance to look serious and capable of dealing with a national disaster: McCain and Palin visited a disaster relief center in Mississippi yesterday. Bush and Cheney probably would have turned off independent voters that Republicans need, and, anyway, the convention might likely have paled next to the Democratic Convention last week: "The tumult may also limit comparisons, which may have been unfavorable, between the Republican convention this week and the Democratic convention in Denver last week, where Mr. Obama's acceptance speech drew more than 40 million television viewers," the Times writes.

The hurricane may have shortened the convention but it didn't put a dent in the Post's special convention section, which has a good analysis of the Bush factor in McCain's campaign—the headline "The Friend He Just Can't Shake" says it well—and a story on Palin's popularity among evangelical voters. Evangelicals are lukewarm about McCain but love Palin, who was raised as a Pentecostal, calls herself "pro-life as any candidate can be" and believes in Creationism. The Democrats, for their part, are arguing that contrary to what Palin says, she was for the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" before she was against it. And the Post has a gushy story on how Barack Obama and Joe Biden have become best buds; Obama's daughters and Biden's granddaughters have already had a sleepover together.

The papers carry the usual Monday slate of foreign-news features. Mexico is suffering a frightening and growing kidnapping epidemic that affects poor Mexicans as well as the rich, the LAT reports on its front page. Mental-health problems plague Kashmir 20 years after fighting began between the Indian government and Muslim separatists, the Post reports. The NYT finds that Tajikistan is banking its future on the one resource it has in abundance: water. And Africa has yuppies, the Post reports on the front page.

The Oprah Politician Club. Political endorsements are usually of dubious worth, with little evidence they sway voters' minds. But a University of Maryland study reported in the Post suggests that Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Obama tipped the balance in the primary campaign. By analyzing voting patterns and correlating them to geographic markers of Winfrey's popularity, likes sales of her magazine, the researchers estimated that Obama gained more than 1 million votes due to the endorsement.

Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.