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