As a boy I stood at the parlor window of my grandparents’ farmhouse in Schuylkill County, PA, on a late-summer day, and watched powerful winds blow the roof off a neighbor’s barn. The pieces of his roof looked like gigantic playing cards, sailing down across his pasture.
This was the great (unnamed) hurricane of August 1949. It roared out of the Caribbean, wrecked Palm Beach, Florida, then tore up through Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Flooding and winds from the storm caused millions of dollars (billions today) in damage. It killed many people and necessitated a massive cleanup of the entire eastern seaboard.
I know all this now, but I didn’t at age six. Even then, however, I realized that storms sometimes produce results that are not altogether disadvantageous. I recall grownups discussing how the neighbor’s insurance paid for a new roof for his barn, and that the old roof had blown off because it was no longer sound. His negligence had paid off. (My grandparents’ farm was undamaged.)
Although there was much talk about the storm, I heard no criticism of President Truman or his government for failing to “prevent” the hurricane – an idea that would have been absurd then – or for not responding quickly enough with federal aid. In fact, old reports of the storm say little about the feds. In those (bad old) days, hurricane assistance was a state and local responsibility. People tended to look out for themselves and others in their immediate communities. Most folks would have been amazed to see National Guard troops on the scene, or federal “relief centers” handing out free food and $2,000 debit cards.
In 1972, the DC area endured ten days of heavy rains from Hurricane Agnes. A roaring torrent wrecked Rock Creek Park, and the flooded Potomac stood halfway up the Tidal Basin’s cherry trees. During the downpour I saw my neighbor outside digging in his yard. As I ran out to help him I saw that the installers of his above-ground pool had run a perforated overflow pipe underground and through the brick wall of his basement stairwell. Water from the saturated ground was leaching into the pipe and pouring into the stairwell. The flood had overwhelmed his French drain, and the water level stood halfway up the door. Of course, his basement was afloat. With a sledge-hammer we knocked the pipe loose and pulled it out to stop the flow. He got no federal funds for the damage to his basement.
My lifetime has spanned dozens of hurricanes, and I have experienced some first-hand (Carol, 1954; Hazel, 1955; Agnes, 1972), but I can recall nothing like the poisonous rhetoric, name-calling, and political posturing that accompany hurricanes now (especially when we have a Republican president). Political opponents blamed President Trump for the recent Atlantic hurricane, Florence, because he removed us from the Paris Climate Accords.
Katrina, in 2005, was the most politicized hurricane in history, up to that time. The media gleefully bashed Mr. Bush for his “massive failure” responding to the New Orleans disaster. Charges of racism resounded like bull-fight “olés.” Some Democrats demanded that Mr. Bush use his next Supreme Court nomination to “control the political damage.” (The climate-change shtick had not yet caught on.)
Analysts and commissions have argued, ever since, about who should have done what, and when. A short column like this can only make a stab at an analysis, but we’ll try to hit the highlights (or lowlights). First, let’s note that most charges against FEMA and Mr. Bush were subjective (e.g., the federal response was “too slow,” etc.), while the real failures of local officials in charge of immediate response to the crisis were glossed over. Mayor Ray Nagin, for instance, made a media splash by cussing out President Bush during an on-air interview:
“They flew down here one time, two days after the doggone event was over, with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn… – excuse my French, but I am pissed. We had an incredible crisis here and his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice. I have been all around this city and I am very frustrated because we are not able to marshal resources and we are outmanned in just about every respect…”
Tough talker (Ray Nagin)
Mayor Nagin was right to be frustrated, but his ire was misdirected. A president’s on-site appearance is symbolic. He brings no supplies with him. FEMA and federal troops are not first responders. They are not sent to pluck people off rooftops by helicopter. Governor Kathleen Blanco controlled resources that might have helped New Orleans, had she released them in a timely way. Hizzoner was irked mainly because Mr. Bush’s flyover denied him a valuable political opportunity for a shirtsleeves photo-op with the Big Guy.
Jason van Steenwyk, an Army National Guardsman previously mobilized six times for hurricane relief said response to Katrina was faster than for Hugo (1989), Andrew and Iniki (1992), and Francine and Jeanne (2004). A typical federal response-time for hurricanes is five days. Federal assistance began arriving in New Orleans after three days. Mayor Nagin, not Mr. Bush, was on the front line. Several key questions about his “leadership” remain unanswered:
- Why was the New Orleans hurricane disaster plan not followed?
- Why were hundreds of buses left in a low-lying area – until they were ruined by flooding – instead of being used to take stranded residents out of the city?
- Why were residents encouraged to gather by thousands at the Superdome, then left there without provisions or oversight? (Sensational reports of crime, rape and even murder at the Superdome were later shown to be false. Newsman Brian Williams’ claim of seeing bodies floating past after the storm was also completely refuted.)
- What happened to the entire NOPD? Officers reportedly deserted in the hundreds. Some, driving their own cruisers, were stopped in Florida and Mississippi by police who assumed the cruisers were stolen.
- With a five-day warning, why did Mayor Nagin delay his order for a compulsory evacuation until the last minute?
- Why was the Red Cross denied permission to enter New Orleans when they arrived with supplies and assistance 48 hours after the levees broke?
Superdome crowd during Katrina
My guess is that when Mayor Nagin saw what a monumental screwup he was (to borrow his vernacular), he went on the offensive to divert media attention. Knowing that the media could be drawn by denunciations of Mr. Bush, Mayor Nagin took the smart tack. He became, in effect, an early Black Lives Matter protestor: ‘My city died, and it’s your @#$%^ fault…’
Governor Kathleen Blanco’s main contribution was weeping on TV. Clearly out of her depth, she dithered and delayed as the storm broke the levees, flooded a large part of the city, and stranded 100,000 people. Mr. Bush declared Louisiana a “disaster area” two days before the storm hit, but the governor waited until two days after it hit to accept the president’s offer of federal troops. (What was she waiting for?) Senator Mary Landrieu also made headlines by saying she might “punch” President Bush for his inadequate response to the hurricane’s destruction.
So Louisiana’s female governor sobs on TV, and its female senator talks tough. (Great.) The mayor of New Orleans thinks cussing out the president is helpful. (Bravely spoken.) With leadership like this, where is the first page of the Manhattan phone book when you really need it?
Louisiana has elected populist demagogues for generations. Possibly the most famous was controversial and colorful Governor and Senator Huey Long, whose career as a possible rival of Franklin Roosevelt ended with his 1935 assassination. Other politicians – including several Longs – also built successful careers on colorful rhetoric and corrupt governing. Louisiana’s current bunch inherits some of this tradition. Funds for disaster relief and protection have been flowing into New Orleans for decades. Where that money went is a morality play of Louisiana politics.
Katrina showed us that while demagoguery makes for good politics, demagogues do not necessarily make good leaders – especially in times of crisis. Louisiana’s pols were in way over their heads (so to speak) on this one. Part of the reason, I believe, is lack of real-world experience in venues experienced by most ordinary people. If I could interview potential officeholders, I would ask them these (and similar) questions:
- Have you ever done a hard day’s work in your life?
- Have you ever shoveled dirt in your backyard?
- Have you ever changed a tire or repaired your own car?
- Have you ever tried to dry out a flooded basement?
- Have you ever spent all day sawing and hammering to build something?
Most politicians today – including those in Louisiana and New Orleans – hail from the “clean-fingernails crowd.” They would tend to answer those questions in the negative.
It’s not politically correct to say so any more – and some of my readers will condemn me for saying it now – but women have the clean-fingernails problem in spades (so to speak). Films depict women as just as tough, combative, and decisive as men, but real life is not a movie. Women’s upbringing – and perhaps their essential nature – rarely equips them for tough situations like hurricanes, floods, looting, terrorist-attacks, etc. I heard one woman say she spent her girlhood helping injured insects. That’s nice, but how does it prepare one for life’s more difficult realities as head of a city, a state or the entire country?
Some women in politics today like to talk tough (e.g., Mary Landrieu), but that’s not the same as actually dealing with tough physical problems. Mayor Nagin talked tough, too, as if he came up from the ‘hood. But he is a well educated man who was VP and general manager of a cable company before being elected to his office. His clean-fingernails background evidently didn’t prepare him for a real crisis. You can’t cuss your way into toughness. (Ask any kid.)
Governing is not just about making speeches and handing out perks and goodies. Sometimes it means standing up, taking charge, and actually leading. If Katrina was a test of Louisiana’s politicians, then all of them – including its two senior women – got “F.”
When his big test came in New York, on 9/11/2001, Rudi Giuliani stood up like a real man – strong, positive, decisive. He never lost his head. He believed in his great city, and he rallied its people with optimism, compassion and defiance. He didn’t cuss on camera or moan about all the hurting people. New Yorkers would have been embarrassed by that. They expected real mettle in their mayor, and they got it when it really counted.
At their time of crisis, New Orleans and Louisiana needed that same mettle. Instead, they got incompetence, dithering, tears, coarse talk, political histrionics, disrespect of the president, and blame thrown fifteen ways from Sunday. Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, and Senator Landrieu failed the people of Louisiana who trusted and depended on them.
Many voters evidently had this modern leadership-parable in mind when they decided, in 2016, which presidential candidate offered the best prospect for cool-headed leadership when the stuff hits the fan. Both obviously had clean-fingernails origins. Mrs. Clinton had been tested in a high-profile public office during a crisis. Her grade was also “F” – not encouraging for a would-be president. We still don’t know where she actually was on the night when all hell broke loose in Benghazi. (Perhaps at her yoga lesson, or baking cookies.) After the disaster in which four Americans died at our embassy, she lied about what caused the armed attacks.
Mr. Trump had never held a government office, and I doubt that he has ever shoveled dirt or worked on his car. But he had certainly dealt with crises at high business levels, where he was the Main Guy. The Buck stopped with him. You don’t reach his level in business by dithering, losing your head in an emergency, blaming others, deserting the field, and lying afterward to cover it up. His subsequent conduct as president shows that voters had taken his measure correctly.
Mayor Ray Nagin was convicted of committing bribery and fraud while he governed New Orleans. He began serving a 10-year sentence at a minimum security federal prison in east Texas on September 8, 2014.
Governor Kathleen Blanco finished her term as Louisiana’s first female governor in January 2008, having announced earlier that she would not seek re-election. She admitted failures in her administration’s response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which struck the state within a month of each other.
Senator Mary Landrieu was not held responsible by voters for mismanagement on Katrina. She continued in office until 2015, having served three terms in the U. S. Senate.
President George W. Bush finished his second term in 2009. Although much maligned by Democrat politicians and liberal media for “incompetent governance,” his administration actually presided over a significant reduction in violent crime and prevented new terrorist attacks on American soil after 9/11/2001. (Mr. Bush has neither confirmed nor denied that Senator Landrieu ever challenged him to a duel or a 3-round punching match.)
Kathleen Blanco depicted by Annette Bening in the film Katrina