After Katrina, hurricanes are major political events, perhaps the only unscripted events left in American politics. That adds a whole new dimension to storm watching.
At virtually every level, public officials performed far better during Hurricane Isaac than their predecessors did during Katrina. That's as it should be, considering that today's leaders had seven years to learn from the mistakes of 2005. Still, in Louisiana it's noteworthy when things turn out as they should.
Starting at the top, President Barack Obama and the feds — including FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — executed flawlessly. There wasn't much the president could do, but, as George W. Bush famously proved in 2005, that doesn't mean he should do nothing. At the appropriate time, Obama issued a disaster declaration, which opened the spigot of federal funds, and he expressed sincere hopes that lives would be spared.
More important, FEMA officials were on the ground in south Louisiana ahead of the storm and prepared for whatever Isaac was going to dish out. That stood in stark contrast to 2005.
The Corps of Engineers has taken a beating in south Louisiana since Katrina, so it's only fair to note that the nation's largest civil defense project — the 1.8-mile "wall" across the marshes of St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans, including the infamous "Mister Go" and the Intracoastal Waterway — worked exactly as designed. In fact, everything the feds built since Katrina worked as planned. It's amazing what $10 billion in infrastructure (and lots of local oversight) can do.
Gov. Bobby Jindal started last week perhaps feeling like the unluckiest guy in politics. For the second time in four years, his star turn at the Republican National Convention was interrupted by a hurricane that forced him to stay home. (Four years ago it was Gustav.)
As it turns out, both storms might have been political blessings in disguise, for Jindal is not a great speaker — but managing an unfolding crisis is something he does exceedingly well. In fact, he might have gotten more mileage out of Isaac than he could have gotten at the GOP convention, where his shortcomings as a speaker would have been magnified in comparison to speeches by Mitt and Ann Romney, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and others. On the other hand, no other Republican in America was managing a genuine crisis last week.
Jindal managed his very well. In addition to his facile recitation of facts and figures, Jindal responded quickly at every turn — particularly to the threat posed by a potential dam break in Mississippi. And while his initial criticism of Obama's disaster declaration (George W. Bush issued the exact same declaration in 2008, with no complaints from Jindal) looked ham-fisted, it worked: The president upped the ante and expanded the scope of his declaration. It helped both men — and best of all, it turned out well for Louisiana.
Locally, Mayor Mitch Landrieu was as sharp as ever. He surrounded himself with all the key players, and he kept his cool throughout the crisis. His command of the facts rivaled Jindal's, and he's a much better speaker. Plaudits also go to Jefferson Parish President John Young and St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister, who likewise showed their mettle during the storm.
All three local leaders made excellent use of TV as well as digital media to keep their constituents informed — and safe. Of course, this is what they're supposed to do.
Someday, politicians doing their jobs well in the face of a crisis won't be so newsworthy. Seven years after Katrina, it very much is — and it makes for grand political theater.