Advice for elected officials facing potential natural disaster? Overreact.
Political leaders up and down the Eastern Seaboard who prepared diligently for Hurricane Irene are receiving generally positive reviews Monday for their handling of the storm.
The region did not escape without notable damage and tragic loss; a day after the weakening storm departed the U.S., some areas are still dealing with the aftereffects, and the storm's death toll has now risen to 37 people in 10 states, according to the Associated Press. But while natural disasters have the potential to derail a politician's career if handled inadequately (see Lindsay, John), the attention paid to Irene has won plaudits for several politicians at the local, state and federal level.
At the federal level, President Obama's reelection campaign hopes his response to the storm will be seen as a restoration of the government's competence in handling a crisis -- an important issue in Obama's 2008 winning campaign.
Six years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southern Plaquemines Parish, La., devastating the Gulf Coast and inundating New Orleans with flood-waters. But the inability of government -- at the municipal, state and federal level -- to respond to the storm would soon eclipse Mother Nature as the enduring story of Katrina.
The failure of government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was embodied by one statement then President George W. Bush uttered five days after the storm made landfall. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," Bush told then-FEMA Administrator Michael Brown
"Brown was patently not doing a heck of a job," wrote historian Douglas Brinkley in his book "The Great Deluge."
This time around, government was deadly serious, and it was out in full force. Obama cut his vacation short a day and coordinated meetings from the White House over the weekend, addressing to the nation late Sunday afternoon, as the storm was barreling through northern New England and into Quebec.
Obama's decision to leave Martha's Vineyard early stood in stark contrast to Bush, who did not return to Washington from his August vacation until two days after Katrina made landfall as a Category Three storm. Air Force One flew over New Orleans en route from Crawford, Tex., to Washington, in order to give Bush an aerial view of the storm's toll on the city.
Of course, the federal government's failure neither begins nor ends with the optics of Bush's vacation. FEMA provided too few resources to the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans. And the leadership of those governments -- Gov. Kathleen Blanco
and Mayor Ray Nagin
-- badly mishandled what resources they had.
In advance of Irene late last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
called for an evacuation of residents in the extreme low-lying sections of the city and ordered the unprecedented shuttering of the city's subway system. Within a matter of hours, New Yorkers quickly became familiar with a map of flood "zones" that a former city Office of Emergency Management official described to Hotline On Call
as "10 years of planning."
In neighboring New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie
appeared on television to implore his residents to evacuate from coastal areas.
"Get the hell off the beach," Christie said at a press conference late Friday, as news reports showed some beachgoers weren't heeding his warnings. "You're done. It's 4:30: You've maximized your tan. Get off the beach."
Bloomberg and Christie were particularly stung by criticism
over their handling of a blizzard last December that dumped upwards of two feet of snow
over the New York metropolitan area. Bloomberg was hit for his administration's inability to clear all the snow quickly, while Christie was on a Disney World vacation with his family when the storm hit, despite prior forecasts of a crippling snowfall.
These officials are now winning praise for their handling of Hurricane Irene, in part because they may have gone overboard. The reality is that Irene wasn't the East Coast's Katrina, striking land at a much weaker intensity.
That part of the equation was out of the hands of Obama, Bloomberg, Christie and other public officials whose constituents were in the storm's path, like North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue
or Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
. But the extreme precautions taken by some leaders are winning praise.
"[G]overnment agencies and leaders -- led by Mayor Bloomberg and Govs. [Andrew
and Chris Christie -- deserve a lot of credit for the way in which they unhesitatingly took the initiative and ensured that, as far as government was concerned, preparations were as thorough as possible. And none of them deserved the carping and second-guessing that was creeping into some commentary" the New York Post editorialized
. "Because, ultimately, the old adage holds true: Better safe than sorry."
Under the headline, "This Time, Mostly Praise for the Mayor
," the New York Times
' Michael Barbaro
wrote that Bloomberg "had done much to repair his reputation for C.E.O.-style leadership, a reputation that had been badly tarnished" by the December blizzard.
The headline in the Daily News
was, "Too much was just right: Bloomy's sky-is-falling act makes him hurricane hero
The storm also showcased Newark Mayor Cory Booker
, who won praise for shoveling sidewalks for trapped residents after that December snowstorm. Booker appeared on NBC's Meet the Press
and cable television on Sunday, as hosts asked him about delivering pizzas to an evacuation shelter and using his Twitter account to communicate with residents needing city assistance.
"I'm proud of my president, I'm proud of my governor for both jumping in and being very, very pre-cautious by calling a state of emergency," Booker said Sunday on Meet
"It's much better to be prepared for an emergency and not have one than have an emergency and not be prepared."