New Orleans, I have said to anyone who will listen, has given the world two gifts, jazz and a procedure for disaster administration. Katrina’s bad example has changed the rule books for subsequent disasters including forest fires in California and tornadoes in the heartland. Now those rules have come back to help us. Here’s my list of important learners.
My pick for toughest job in Louisiana last week goes to the person who does the signing for the hearing impaired while Governor Bobby Jindal is speaking; Jindal has always had a penchant for speaking fast and during his several Katrina briefings he rattled off facts at a Category 5 level. While all that he said was hard to keep track of, the totality of the information was very impressive. With representatives of state and federal government standing behind him, the young governor seemed to be totally in charge and with a firm grasp of the facts. Poor Kathleen Blanco was never able to show such leadership though, in fairness, she never had such an earlier disaster to learn from. Jindal exuded confidence at a time when people needed, more than ever, someone in authority to be confident in.
This time the agency did do a heck of a job. Its people were on scene before the disaster and not just after. The post- disaster period of wrangling with FEMA is still ahead of us but during the storm the agency performed as though it really did understand the severity of the word “Emergency” that is in its name.
For as long as there are memories of Katrina there will be debate about the parish president’s controversial decision to close the drain pumps so as to protect the pump operators although that caused much of the parish’s east bank to be flooded. (When Broussard ran for reelection he lost the popular vote on the east bank and was only returned to office because he carried the other side of the river.)
This time a confident Broussard could say that the pump operators now had new safe houses to operate from and that flooding would not be an issue. He used the media well, both in ordering an evacuation and in providing information while still allowing the parish‘s pantheon of elected officials to have their say. Like street flooding, some of the hostility against Broussard might now have receded.
CORPS OF ENGINEERS
Everybody’s favorite target proved that it can build levees well and can do the engineering to stave off floods. What needs to be understood about the Corps is that it is a public body and ultimately it responds to the public will, especially as reflected through congressional appropriations. If the levees were not strong enough and high enough before Katrina, that’s because there was little public outcry for them to be so. If public attitude can provide the political will, the Corps can find the way.
ABOUT RAY NAGIN
Nagin does not make this list on a technicality. While he got mixed reviews during Katrina and its immediate aftermath, his greatest slide in public appeal came months later with landfall being his "Chocolate City" speech followed by a series of other pronouncements and gaffes that seemed to be playing the races against each other. Yet, as Gustav loomed, there could be do doubt of his sincerity in urging the city’s residents to get out of town. He took some flak for delaying the re-reentry, a strategy which eventually fell apart, though from a public safety perspective his position was not wrong. Being right, however, just doesn’t matter when folks just want to go home.
No other mayor has had to evacuate his city twice. May no mayor ever have to do it again. This time we’re home to stay.
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