Hurricane Isaac Presents Challenge to Local, State and Federal Leadership

By the time you read this, Hurricane Isaac will have likely made landfall and may have already moved into or even beyond New Orleans.

When Isaac makes landfall it will test many things about New Orleans: Whether the floodgates and the floodwalls erected since Hurricane Katrina seven years ago are adequate; whether residents have learned from their previous experiences; whether the city as a whole is now sufficiently prepared and resilient to take on this or any other hurricane.

But something more amorphous and harder to define will also be tested: The leadership of the city, the state and the nation.

In 2005 the horrendous damage caused by Katrina was compounded by leadership failures at the municipal, state and federal levels. Decisions that needed to be made were delayed or deferred.

In the city, Mayor Ray Nagin waited to order a mandatory evacuation until only 20 hours before landfall, barely giving residents time to leave. As the US Senate investigation put it plainly: “Mayor Nagin wasted time in waiting to order a mandatory evacuation until Sunday morning, while his staff worked out details of the order that should have been settled long before the crisis.

I once asked him why he waited so long. According to him, it was Katrina’s changing and uncertain track that prevented him from issuing an earlier mandatory evacuation order. “Katrina was an extremely deceptive storm,” he said. Once he received a desperate call from Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, he ordered the city attorney to draw up a mandatory evacuation order. However, he pointed out, “It was only 24 hours [before landfall] that it was clear it would hit New Orleans.”

When he did decide to explore a mandatory evacuation, the city legal team, not having made any prior preparations for the contingency, became enmeshed in detailed legal wrangling that delayed the final order.

For her part, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco waited to ask for federal help until the full scope of the disaster was apparent and then her requests were vague and unfocused. “Send everything you’ve got,” she told Frances Townsend, the White House homeland security and counterterrorism advisor. She later amended that to a request for 40,000 federal troops, which she wanted put under her command.

Once Hurricane Katrina struck, the mayor, governor and president distrusted, disliked and disrespected each other and their inability to work cooperatively had real consequences on the ground.

Nagin and Blanco became mired in mutual suspicion. It’s worth noting that their distaste had its origins when Nagin, a Democrat,endorsed Bobby Jindal, the current governor of Louisiana and a Republican, over Blanco, a fellow Democrat. Blanco and Nagin’s relationship, never very good, deteriorated under the pressure of events.

Nagin thought he was being used by Blanco for photo ops; she thought he was having a nervous breakdown. Eventually, Nagin came to believe the same of Blanco. When President George W. Bush eventually came down to New Orleans days after the storm a hurricane of blame—and blame deflection and finger pointing—ensued.

At the time of Bush’s visit the question on the table was whether the response should be federalized, something Blanco resisted. When Bush offered a compromise solution, Blanco asked for 24 hours to think about it—24 critical hours that would have delayed assistance to the city’s most helpless victims.

The failures of Katrina are detailed in reams of paper and reports. A 732-page Senate report presented 186 findings and 88 recommendations. A report in the House of Representatives called, A Failure of Initiative, contained 364 pages of conclusions and analysis. A White House review ran to 228 pages of analysis and recommendations. But in addition to the discussions of wetlands and levees and pumping stations, there was also the failure of leadership, which had major consequences.

It’s a different cast of characters facing the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is a member of a very prominent Louisiana political family, a politician of long experience and a former lieutenant governor, the son of a former New Orleans mayor and the brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Since his election in 2010, he’s generally received high marks for reviving and boosting the city.

Gov. Bobby Jindal is a true prodigy. As a student he was accepted at both Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School but turned both down to study at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. At 24 he was named head of Louisiana’s public health system and raised it from deficits to surpluses. At 28 he was the youngest ever president of the University of Louisiana System. After being defeated for governor by Blanco, he served in the US House of Representatives—including on the Homeland Security Committee –and it was in that capacity that he participated in the events surrounding Katrina. In 2008 he became the youngest serving governor in the United States at the age of 36 and the state’s first ethnic governor since Reconstruction. As governor he tackled the BP oil spill and Hurricane Gustav.

President Barack Obama, of course, has been in office since 2009. The product of an Ivy League education like Jindal, the two had to work together on the BP oil spill.

Hurricane Isaac, a Category 1 storm, is not like Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3. And Landrieu-Jindal-Obama is not Nagin-Blanco-Bush. How the current team works together and the quality of the decisions they make will determine how well New Orleans comes through the current storm. Indications are that it should do much better than seven years ago.

But their interaction bears scrutiny and the results will speak for themselves.

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