With so many video and written retrospectives on Hurricane Katrina these days, in observance of Saturday’s tenth anniversary of its landfall, I am surprised how little attention has been paid to the fact that one current presidential candidate was almost the only public official of either party who emerged with his reputation bolstered, rather than tarnished, by his response to the storm. Bobby Jindal, later governor of Louisiana, was then a freshman U.S. representative.
While leading officials (Governor Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin) were panicked into inaction or showed self-absorbed incompetence (FEMA chief Michael Brown), or stumbled horribly in the PR department through their own absurd missteps and those of their staffs (one example: President Bush), or fulminated about punching the president in the nose (hardly a helpful response by then-senator Mary Landrieu), or blathered about how New Orleans wasn’t even worth rebuilding (creepy Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert), Jindal and his staff were a whirlwind of constructive, effective activity. They cut through (or just ignored) bureaucratic red tape, helped connect searching family members with their missing loved ones, gave names and addresses of stranded residents to rescuers, and in sundry other ways showed a rare command of crisis management.
The contrast between Jindal’s competence and Blanco’s paralysis played a significant role in Jindal’s landslide election as governor two years later. Jindal followed, as governor, by doing similarly good jobs (albeit less dramatic) managing responses to Hurricanes Gustav and Isaac and to the BP oil gusher.
Disaster management alone does not make a good presidential candidate or a good president. But it certainly helps. Among the five or six (at least) solidly conservative, well-qualified presidential candidates in this year’s Republican field, Jindal is, I think, the only one both so deeply tested on this skill and so repeatedly proven as a success at it.