Before he and his wife left for six weeks of road-tripping through upstate New York and New England, my father enlisted my help in sealing off his beach house here in Charleston with metal hurricane shutters. It wasn’t the first time I’ve put shutters up on his house; I always take a little joy in seeing the perplexed and nervous looks on the faces of tourists and renters as they pass by — one of these days, I’d like to spraypaint “GO AWAY, KEVIN!” on some of the shutters, just for kicks.
While an onerous task, shuttering the house is wholly necessary, as the hurricane season spans from June 1 to November 30 of every year, peaking on September 10. Hurricane Hugo made landfall almost exactly where my father now lives, and any anxiety he has about leaving everything behind during his escape from the South Carolina summer heat is more than understandable.
Thankfully, Hurricane Irene failed to even knock the beach chairs off of the hooks in the area beneath his home. While others up and down the east coast certainly were not as lucky–at last count, 35 people lost their lives as a result of the store, and hundreds more lost everything–in the aftermath of Irene the focus seems to be inexplicably on whether the media and state governments over-hyped the storm.
After the losses are mourned and the lives are put back together, the focus in retrospect should be on how the response to Hurricane Irene showed the proper role of government on the local, state and federal level. Irene should stand opposite Katrina in that regard, the latter a situation in which the local and state governments balked at instituting mandatory evacuations, refused to take steps necessary to safeguard the populace, and bristled at a president desperately looking for a way to introduce federal authority as a stop-gap measure intended to make up for the shortfalls of state and local government.
Just yesterday, I once again picked up Decision Points, former President George W. Bush’s memoirs released last year. I had stopped reading it so that I could prepare for the Bar Exam. Appropriately enough, I stopped right before the chapter on Hurricane Katrina. In the first few pages of that chapter, not only does the former president delineate the proper role of government in disaster relief, but he describes in detail the complete and utter mess left by floundering state and local governments after Katrina decimated the area.
“Who’s in charge of security in New Orleans?” I asked.
My question silenced the raucous discussion in the Air Force One conference room on Friday, September 2, 2005. “The governor is in charge,” Mayor Ray Nagin said, pointing across the dark wood table at Governor Kathleen Blanco.
Every head pivoted in her direction. The Louisiana governor froze. She looked agitated and exhausted. “I think it’s the mayor,” she said non-committally.
Four days had passed since Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast. Winds above 120 miles per hour had flattened the Mississippi coastline and driven a wall of water through the levees of New Orleans. Eighty percent of the city, home to more than 450,000 people, had flooded. Reports of looting and violence filled the news.
By law, state and local authorities lead the response to natural disasters, with the federal government playing a supporting role. That approach had worked during the eight hurricanes, nine tropical storms, and more than two hundred tornadoes, floods, wildfires, and other emergencies we had faced since 2001. State and local first responders were in command of the Katrina response in Alabama and Mississippi, where I had visited earlier in the day. But after four days of chaos, it was clear the authorities in Louisiana could not lead.
The initial plan had been for me to land at the New Orleans airport, pick up Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin, and survey the damage on an aerial tour. But on the Marine One flight from Mississippi, we received word that the governor, mayor and a Louisiana congressional delegation were demanding a private meeting on Air Force One first.
The tone started out tense and got worse. The governor and mayor bickered. Everyone blasted the Federal Emergency Management Agency for failing to meet their needs. Congressman Bobby Jindal pointed out that FEMA had asked people to email their requests, despite the lack of electricity in the city. I shook my head. “We’ll fix it,” I said, looking at FEMA director Mike Brown. Senator Mary Landrieu interrupted with unproductive emotional outbursts. “Would you please be quiet?” I had to say to her at one point.
I asked to speak to Governor Blanco privately. We walked out of the conference room, through a narrow passageway, and into the small cabin at the front tip of Air Force One. I told her it was clear the state and local response forces had been overwhelmed. “Governor,” I pressed, “you need to authorize the federal government to take charge of the response.”
She told me she needed twenty-four hours to think it over.
“We don’t have twenty-four hours,” I snapped. “We’ve waited too long already.”
The governor refused to give an answer.
Next I asked to meet privately with Mayor Nagin. He had spent four days since Katrina holed up in a downtown hotel. He hadn’t bathed or eaten a hot meal until he used my shower and ate breakfast on Air Force One. In a radio interview the previous evening, he had vented his frustration with the federal government. “Get off your asses and do something,” he said, “and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.” Then he broke down in tears. When I met him on that plane, Ray whispered an apology for his outburst and explained that he was exhausted.
I asked the mayor what he thought about federalizing the responses. He supported it. “Nobody’s in charge,” he said. “We need a clear chain of command.” But only the governor could request that the federal government assume control of the emergency.
This chain of command is essential. While I want to refrain from–and caution others against doing so as well–going off the reservation with regard to the nature of the emergency powers authorized to the president of the United States as they relate to the limitations on executive power included in the Constitution, it goes without saying that if the opportunity to provide the federal government with expanded powers can be avoided, it’s probably a good idea to do so. Plus, I don’t think anyone would argue that with the exception of the Louisiana mess following Katrina, results are generally better when anything is kept closer to the people. Including disaster response.
As Hurricane Irene pounded the coast, what we saw were governors learning from the pitfalls of the Katrina response and taking a stronger lead in mitigating damage and loss of life ahead of time.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sure seems to understand the proper limitations placed on the role of government. “I cannot make you leave your home and I am certainly not going to place you under arrest to make you leave,” Christie said last Friday, before cautioning that “if you stay where you are now, you are placing yourself in greater danger.”
And that’s the proper role of government, even in the face of a mandatory evacuation. Encourage the people to leave, provide for a mechanism for people to use in the evacuation, and repeat if necessary. Repeat loudly if need be. Personally, while talk radio host Mark Levin argued otherwise, I thought Christie’s approach was fantastic.
Driving back toward South Carolina from Massachusetts over the past two days, my father has told me of seemingly endless caravans of generator-carrying flatbed trucks and various utility company equipment. On Twitter, Chris Christie publicly thanked Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett for sending ambulances across the Delaware River.
That’s how it should be, folks. Private citizens looking out for one another. Private companies temporarily sacrificing manpower and equipment to help strangers put their lives back together. Sure, there is a time and a place for involvement from the federal government–New Orleans needed National Guard and quasi-active-duty troops in the aftermath of Katrina–but for the most part we want to err on the side of personal responsibility and person-level accountability.
I don’t know how Hurricane Irene will be remembered by the nation at large. Some will remember it as the over-hyped storm that dumped little more wind and rain than an above-average nor’easter. Others will look at the ruins of their homes or the grave markers of their loved ones and remember that Irene was the storm that cost them everything. I will remember Irene as our first real hurricane threat since we moved to South Carolina.
(I will also remember laughing at Fox News Channel’s Geraldo Rivera, who did his Saturday night broadcast on 6th Street in midtown Manhattan. It wasn’t even windy yet; he was just getting rained on. Irene may have been a Category 1 hurricane, but Geraldo was a Category 5 moron.)
I hope that Irene will also be remembered for being the storm that showed the merits of a proper governmental approach to disaster planning and recovery. Rooftop rescues were few and far between. Lawlessness has been kept to a minimum. As the flood waters recede, people are preparing to rebuild, with and without funding and help from local, state and federal government.
As my mother used to say, Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Utilizing and accounting for the advantages and disadvantages of government at every level is as essential a preparatory device as sandbags and plywood.