As Government Reacts to Sandy, Lessons from Katrina and Other Natural Disasters

The politics and policy of emergency preparedness have changed a lot in the last seven years.

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Misha Gulko / ABACAUSA.COM

Hurricane Sandy hits in the Brooklyn borough of New York

Hunkering down last night under the howling winds of Sandy and reading every scrap of information on the storm, I was struck by the fact that seven years after Hurricane Katrina, local, state and federal officials were incredibly well prepared. Newark Mayor Cory Booker answered distress calls on Twitter; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie evacuated the shore; and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent in city workers to help evacuate NYU Tisch Hospital after its backup generator failed. There was a striking difference in leadership between these men and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, both of whom watched like deer staring blankly into headlights as Katrina approached in 2005.

There was also a difference of presidential leadership. George W. Bush named his friend Michael Brown, a lawyer and former director of the International Arabian Horse Association, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. No one would make that mistake again. President Obama not only picked an experienced disaster management expert — Craig Fugate, former director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management — but one from a key swing state, just in case. The relative smoothness with which the government handled the storm also reflected FEMA’s high level of funding: a battle Democrats won in the wake of Katrina, insisting that emergency funds, like payments for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, need not be offset by spending cuts or taxes. “The federal government’s response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the President, personally, he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area,” Christie, a top surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said on NBC’s Today. “The President has been outstanding in this and so have the folks at FEMA.”

(PHOTOSThe Toil After the Storm: Life in Sandy’s Wake)

On the night before Katrina hit New Orleans, I was with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. We’d just returned from two days in Idaho where Bush had been mountain biking in Kellogg and the President and First Lady hosted the White House Press Corps at their ranch for their annual August BBQ. The next day Bush flew to Arizona and California for speeches on Medicare and wouldn’t turn his full attention to Katrina until three days after the storm. By the time I watched him arrive in New Orleans four days later–I’d been there three days, coming over directly form Texas — 80,000 people were still trapped in the flooded city with virtually no food, water or sanitation and 1,800 people were dead. Obama, by contrast, canceled a campaign event in Florida before Sandy hit and has hunkered down at the White House for the hurricane’s duration, keeping close tabs on the storm’s track. Sandy is responsible for 16 deaths in the U.S. so far and there are by most estimates only hundreds that need evacuation. But even with seven million people, including much of Manhattan, in darkness there has been little looting — a testament to Bloomberg given New York City’s ugly history with blackouts and looting.

Of course, Katrina was a Category Four storm when it hit the Gulf Coast, but Sandy was the largest storm ever to form in the Atlantic – more than 1,000 miles across – and combined with a Down-easter arguably had as much potential to wreak havoc on the East Coast as Katrina did the Gulf. Sandy also hit one of the most densely populated areas in the world, cities that control much of the world’s economy. Preparing for a blackout in the northeast is a lot more complicated, and has a lot more potential pitfalls, than on the Gulf Coast. As I learned covering the 2003 New York City blackout, if banks and companies don’t have warning to prepare  for a loss of electricity, the world’s economy is put at risk. What happens when a Japanese trader’s New York account suddenly goes dark and he can’t by stock on the FTSE? Or when a company like GE can’t complete a time-sensitive deal in, say, Argentina, because the accounts they were supposed to use were suddenly frozen? Minutes before New York went dark in 2003, major banks and companies got a warning from the mayor’s office to scramble whatever resources they may need to do business with their NYC offices offline. This time businesses in New York, Boston and Washington were prepared for the storm days ahead of time.

(PHOTOS: Sandy’s Historic Damage Across the East Coast)

And you could argue politics is at play. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Katrina hit a non-swing state in an off election year. The year before, when five hurricanes hit Florida, Bush was the picture of concern. I went with Bush to tour damage in Florida and Alabama two days after Hurricane Ivan hit in September 2004. Conversely, when another hurricane hit earlier that summer, I was with Bush’s 2004 opponent Senator John Kerry. Kerry had just wrapped up a rally in Portland, Oregon and had been planning to take the rest of the day to go kite surfing on the Columbia River along the Oregon/Washington border. After we arrived in Washington, though, his campaign aides decided it would look bad for Kerry to kite surf while folks in Florida were battling for their lives and the plan was scrapped. The Kerry campaign was often frustrated by hurricanes and natural disasters that year because it gave Bush an opportunity to look presidential, while they were forced to stop all political – and recreational – activities until the storm and cleanup had passed.

This time around, Romney seems to be suffering from the same frustration. If Obama’s response had been terrible, it could have been an opening. Like when Bill Clinton visited Florida in the wake of Hurricane Andrew during the 1992 election before, even, President George H. W. Bush made it down there. Clinton was seen as more empathetic to the suffering of Andrew’s victims. But, given Christie’s enthusiastic praise for the job Obama has done, that opening doesn’t look likely for Romney. At the storm relief event he’s attending Tuesday morning in Ohio, Romney will likely praise the President’s performance. For a campaign hoping for momentum going into the last week of an election, taking a back seat to Obama is not a comfortable spot. Natural disasters have a way of turning everything upside down.

MORE: What to Learn from New York’s Flooded Subways

51 comments
PeggyMacPhersonJacobs
PeggyMacPhersonJacobs

What are any of them DOING for the victims who are suffering?  They may all be tweeting and twittering and touring but that seems to be about it.  Rapid initial response by everyone was great but not much since.  People are freezing and starving.

DebbieHanrahan
DebbieHanrahan

Romney had an opportunity to show leadership as a Commander in Chief and what he showed was he's clueless, cheap, and a coward.  1) When Romney was given his Security briefing he knew the storm was coming.  His decision?  Hid out in Ohio and Iowa.  Did not go to his home state to give support and aid to his neighbors and fellow citizens.  Romney is a coward.  Romney's stance on FEMA shows he's clueless on the economy as the cost of any crisis must be shared or each state's economy will tank thus causing a domino of state economic failures.  Not to mention the security issue of America dealing with crisis.  Romney stays and campaigns under the guise of storm aid.  He collects groceries.  Nice except groceries need to be shipped and stored when relief agencies time and agian all need cash, blood, and water.  Romney could have shipped tons of water, Romney could have called up CEO's around the world to donate cash, Romney could have donated blood and even made a photo op of it.  Instead, Romney sent out an aid to buy $5,000 worth of groceries.  Nice but even Rick Perry was offered a $10,000 bet.  Romney had an opportunity to show his leadership and what he showed was he is clueless, he is cheap, and he is a coward.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

Can't believe Chris Christie praised Obama's handling of the storm - that must have really stuck in his craw.

Tayo Ogunleye
Tayo Ogunleye

they really done well havent they....... coordination and preparation was superb

akpat
akpat

The state of AZ as well as UT want to aquire federal lands. In fact it is on the AZ ballot. They want the grande canyon for mining!! Strangely although they want all this they cannot manage the state lands they have at present. As soon as something catches fire the want the feds to sort it out.

BenevolentLawyer
BenevolentLawyer

When we lived in MA, the times I remember when flooding and other disaster struck, Romney was AWAY. And when he returned, he acted as though we had bothered him by expecting him to show come compassion to us. We elected him. 

No one knows how this disaster will turn out but I do know one thing, no real criticism of Obama will stick. If Romney ever opens his lips to utter one criticism, I strongly urge the Obama folks to go back to my home State and ask about Romney and what he said to us after the first flood that occurred during his time as governor. Did he come back from his vacation? And when he did comeback, I hope the Obama folks play the remarks he made to us.

He did not CARE. As I have always stated here, Romney treated us like serfs, and we elected him. He does not deserve to be president of anywhere, let alone a country. It was not only that his venture capitalist experience did not translate into ANY jobs, it was not just that he lied about supporting our economy and ignored his promises about protecting our rights as women, but he DID NOT CARE. He acted it, he stated it, and it was obvious that we had made the worst mistake ever. There is nothing worse that electing an entitled, SMUG and incompetent rich man who pursues power for its own sake. Romney DOES NOT CARE. He does not understand or empathize. He is disconnected, clueless and worst of all, he is BRAZENLY ambitious and STUNNINGLY unsuited for public office.         

Ted Carr
Ted Carr

"Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better." Romney in response to a question by John King during a GOP primary debate, re, FEMA and states.

Southie
Southie

Lessons from Katrina?  The p-poor response from the Bush administration was uncaring, big-time.  But, sorry - the real lesson from Katrina is that the levees failed.  The levees designed and built by the U.S. Army corps of Engineers.  The levees were meant to be stronger, but due to an environmental suit, the design was "softened" and they were built anyway.  Now, it's 2012, and the Army Corps of Engineers has just succeeded in being declared non-responsible for the levee issues.  Thus all the regular people and businesses in the levee wake are left high and dry, on their own, no government help, six or seven years later.   So, Obama's words are all nice to have but what happens after some time passes - I'll bet nothing, just like around Lake Pontchartrain.

Paul Moore
Paul Moore

Which is why, I think, the pronouncement to leave were grim and to the point. "Get out, you may die. And we will not be in a hurry to retrieve your decomposing corpse." They almost said.

Natasha Dial
Natasha Dial

All levels of government could have, & should have been prepared for Katrina, had they spent more time listening to people who are well versed in the subject!

AlistairCookie
AlistairCookie

"And you could argue politics is at play. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Katrina hit a non-swing state in an off election year."

What a hideous sentence, if not inaccurate.  Unfortunately for New Orleans, people aren't actual human beings unless you're in a swing state in an election year.  Your destroyed houses, business and lack of food, shelter, and potable water sure didn't matter since your EC votes were in the bag.

Boy did that leave a bad taste in my mouth.    

kbanginmotown
kbanginmotown

"...Romney will likely praise the President’s performance."

Don't count on it. It's not in the GOP's DNA. 

Example: In the week after the OBL raid, Rep. Mike Rogers MI-8 sent an email thanking a long list of people for this achievement, including the Navy, the SEALs, the intelligence community...but, no thanks to the CiC. Anywhere.

Christie appears to be an exception.

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

Romney is trying to make something out of it by claiming that his campaign event in Ohio is really a flood relief event, complete with Mitt bio video from convention, band, and the usual rah rah. He put the Red Cross in the position of saying, thanks we don't need canned goods and old linens, please ask people to donate money and blood. There is a great picture from the event that Jon Karl tweeted showing two women - one holding up a tee shirt saying Obama You're Fired (Uncle Sam instead of Trump pictured) and the other woman holding up two cans, one of mandarin oranges and one of something Campbell's.

Charlie Pierce discusses how Mitt dealt with a real flood when he was Governor of MA. Hint - Badly.

http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/mitt-romney-mothers-day-floods-2006-14260979

Same day he doubled down on his Jeep lie by not only refusing to take down the tv ad, but running an audio version on radio. Causing Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne to send out a second release stating that Romney was saying something that just wasn't true.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/post/explaining-romneys-dishonesty-on-the-auto-bailout/2012/10/30/646b2cda-22af-11e2-8448-81b1ce7d6978_blog.html

sacredh
sacredh

"There was also a difference of presidential leadership."

.

Here's a stark difference between Mitt and Obama. Obama is using the power and resources of the federal government to deal with an enormous disaster. Mitt thinks FEMA is just another huge government bureacracy and that the the states could handle emergencies better by themselves. Does any governor from any state hit by this historic storm wish that the federal government wasn't involved? Are any of the millions of people at risk thinking to themselves that they wish the federal government would turn over the rescue and recovery efforts to their individual states? Sometimes bigger is better. New York, New Jersey and the other east coast states don't have the resources, people, know-how or experience to deal with a storm of this scale. FEMA people do this for a living.

.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

I get the feeling that your calling the response a success a little early. Once the life threatening danger has passed, tribal instincts will return and you will definitely hear people complaining that their fair share of resources went to undeserving others. 

5...4...3...2...

EdPiedra
EdPiedra

@PeggyMacPhersonJacobs  OBAMA, THE CAMPAIGNER IN CHIEF  is doing a very poor job of using the taxpayer's money to help the victims of SANDY ! The people that  is made believe they OWE  Obama for this help  are misleaded/

OBAMA  is doing only his job  and NOT efficiently  !

MANY PEOPLE HURTING VERY BAD, AND NO help !



They are cold, hungry, thirsty, NO GAS, no artifacts to help them !

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@LiberalLies2012 

In what way has Obama mishandled Sandy?  Even Christie praised the response he's given to it. Why are you always angry about everything associated with Obama?

outsider
outsider

Yestterday we were all posting about the floods in MA,and how Romney was away, on a speaking engagement. Saying he did not think he had to be there.

That it took 3-4 days to respond to th elocals asking for help

bokeh9
bokeh9

@Southie The Corps was found to be at fault but, per federal law, not financially liable.  I don't see what that has to do with President Obama, and I suspect Governors Christie and Blanco have significantly different perspectives about "government help".

BenevolentLawyer
BenevolentLawyer

@Southie What a joke. Obama hired some fellow from the Jeb Bush administration and has shown great concern for the people involved. I do not know what you can compare his response to, but I know that you cannot compare it to Romney's lounging out in his country home while we languished in anguish in MA. Do nothing??? That is Romney's middle, first and last name. Oh, I forgot, hyphenate LIAR to that last name. He lied to us in MA, he did nothing to help our economy or better our lives, and WORST OF ALL, he mocked us relentlessly and stayed  AWAY from our State for over 200 days in his last two years in office. 

 DO NOTHING??? That would be Romney--the quintessential clueless  "I AM A RICH MAN WHO DODGED THE DRAFT, AND STAYED IN FRANCE WRITING LOVE LETTERS, ONLY TO COME HOME AND LATER INHERIT A HOARD OF MONEY-- AND MAKE A TON MORE MONEY BY PARTICIPATING IN A BUSINESS, A BUSINESS THAT REQUIRED ONLY CAPITAL AND AN ABILITY TO DO AND SAY ANYTHING TO MAKE EVEN MORE MONEY!!"  DO nothing??? That would be ROMNEY, the man who took our state to hell in a small hand basket.

hlong69
hlong69

@AlistairCookie, I think you've missed the (intended) point somewhat on this one - the emphasis wasn't on the human impact, but the political maneuvering surrounding that.

You're right that in a human context it's a hideous statement, but let's face it... do you think Bush would have been as hands-off about the initial chaos around Katrina if it had been literally days from an election and Louisiana had happened to be a swing state?  I hold President Bush in pretty low regard, but I'm willing to give him enough credit as a politician that blunders like "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" probably wouldn't have happened quite the way they did.

UMMLocal12
UMMLocal12

What that shows is that the RNC trotted out someone disposable to make a silly argument

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

@Ivy_B It's great having a few librarians in the swamp. The response from the Lowell Sun was unusually blunt for a newspaper, let alone one that allegedly leans right criticizing a Republican.

outsider
outsider

@sacredh 

This is what we were saying earlier - or more specifically, what your friend said this am. 

bokeh9
bokeh9

@sacredh Exactly!  In the face of Governor Romney's and the Republicans' rush to privatize and "shrink" the federal government (um, except for the DOD), isn't Sandy a perfect example of our need for large-community support for large issues?

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@sacredh Excellent point: Florida might be able to take care of themselves, but that's because they deal with this every year.  By having FEMA, you have a team that is used to dealing with hurricanes and can transfer that knowledge to other states who don't see them as often or as severely - and they can work with state and local agencies and help provide that knowledge and experience.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@PaulDirks Yes and no... the complaints will happen, but I'm not sure they'll reach a noticeable pitch before the election next Tuesday.

The other factor is that when people feel they need government, they're going to tend to have a more favorable opinion of government and, by extension, the people in government.  If you kill that good will with incompetence, it will die fast and release a bigger backlash but if you can nurture it - and Obama needs to nurture it for a week - you're going to see a significant benefit.

My feel: with Virginia and Ohio, probably the two most important states in this election and combining for nearly 65% of the tipping point on Nate's forecast, right in the path of this storm, the election will be won in the next 7 days and it is almost entirely in Obama's hands.

outsider
outsider

@LiberalLies2012 @BenevolentLawyer 

Actually, what BL said was accurate, at least in so far as Romney being absentee  That's been documented. Get your facts straight first. 

And remember the bet. 

outsider
outsider

Yesterday, not what i wrote. This new format is hard to use on a mobile. 

BenevolentLawyer
BenevolentLawyer

They will continue to search for every single thing to criticize. That is what the devil ROVE is known for. Fortunately, Obama is preparing for him this time, and will have an answer to Rove's EVIL tactics. I wish Rove could go to the colony on the moon-the colony proposed by Gingrich. :) Oh, and they should take Romney with them. Haha

lreed580
lreed580

@Ivy_B @PaulDirks I posted the same article, not realizing you had posted it. I should have scrolled down through the comments first!

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Please, please, please let Brown be the republican making the case. If anyone should stay in the shaddows...

BenevolentLawyer
BenevolentLawyer

@forgottenlord @PaulDirks I think people will complain, but Obama's response is in stark contrast to the response of Bush in a similar situation. Obama should be prepared for Romney's push back. It will be the usual Romney lies, hysteria, and shrill white noise. I hope the Obama camp is prepared to HIT BACK AT ROMNEY, HARD!! Romney is a coward, and can only be silenced by a sustained and MASSIVE RESPONSE to his expected pile of FABRICATED horse manure on this hurricane issue.   

Romney running for President is one of our worst nightmares. As someone who followed politics closely when Romney was our governor-- the thought of Romney running for any public office, let alone running for the office president, is POSITIVELY HARROWING!!! O M G. That's all most of us former MA residents can say. O M G!! 

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

@LiberalLies2012 @outsider2011 @BenevolentLawyer 

"The entire region was under flood warnings, but the problem was especially acute along the Merrimack River, especially in the city of Lowell, where Romney's response was considered, well, leaky. The right-leaning Lowell Sun was particularly displeased.

"We find it inconceivable that Gov. Mitt Romney claims the state can do nothing to help those residents still struggling to rebuild homes and businesses after the May flood. Massachusetts is sitting on millions in unspent emergency funds from Hurricane Katrina and more than $1 billion in cash reserves, yet Romney has failed to even respond to the Lowell delegation's requests to discuss additional aid for victims. The governor's spokesman — since Romney can't be bothered to comment now that the photo opportunities have dried up even though some residents' basements haven't — said the state will not consider spending its own money for flood victims until it's clear how much cash the federal government will give."

Read more: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/mitt-romney-mothers-day-floods-2006-14260979#ixzz2AtHII7x7