Katrina Pols Weather Legacy of Storm's Trials

Post-Katrina, political leaders face impact on their reputations, careers.

August 29, 2010, 10:56 PM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 30, 2010 -- Hurricane Katrina remains significant not only for the devastation it wrought across the Gulf coast but as a test of leadership and mettle for an entire class of elected and appointed figures at all levels of government.

It was a defining moment for mayors, governors, state and national lawmakers, and a president and his administration pushed to limits few anticipated or planned for. And five years later, it's clear the experience became a shining moment in the careers of some, while straining or breaking others.

"Everybody involved in that storm got proved in some fashion or another," said former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "My 24-year career in politics stretched over a great deal more than a double hurricane experience, but that was the most publicly and nationally profiled experience that I had."

Indeed, the performance of leaders like Blanco has been thoroughly analyzed by congressional committees, the news media and victims of the storm. But experts say that perhaps the most meaningful assessment of their actions lies in the public's confidence, or lack thereof.

"As is often the case in major crises, you get the rally-around-the-flag effect, and leaders tend to immediately benefit," said University of Mississippi political scientist Richard Forgette. "But then that dissipates, and that can have consequences."

President George W. Bush, who shined after Sept. 11, 2001, as the country united around him, has been dogged with criticism for his role during Katrina, an ordeal that has become a stain on his domestic legacy.

"It was a serious moment for Bush, not just because of this one disaster but because it seemed to fit into an emerging narrative," said Brian Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University. "So many things happened that he didn't seem capable of solving them."

Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown was the first head to roll after the storm, after the public lost confidence in his abilities. He "resigned" weeks into the recovery effort but now insists he was fired. (Brown is working on his memoir, "Deadly Indifference," to tell his side of the story.)

And, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, a seasoned crisis manager who took the brunt of official criticism for the federal government's response, served through the end of the administration but has remained relatively silent on explaining his role during those months in 2005. Chertoff now runs a strategic security and risk management advisory firm.

The scale of the disaster and politics of the storm's recovery effort also took an emotional toll on the individuals tasked with leading it.

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who left office in May, moved to Dallas, Texas, with his wife and daughter, and is still deciding on his next career.

"The scars and wounds of Katrina are still with us and they will be for a long time," he said. "With Katrina, she came, she did a devastation, and I was the last man standing, if you will, because Bush left, Kathleen Blanco the governor did not run for reelection, so I took most of the brunt of the anger."

Katrina Proved Some Gulf Pols

Nagin has said the nonstop pressure and seemingly endless challenge in rebuilding his city drained him. "In having to handle everything, he seemed to have lost the will to govern," said Brox.

Gov. Blanco said some of those same pressures cited by Nagin also took a toll on her desire and ability to lead.

"It was quite an experience just fighting for a fair share of the money we needed and asking for it to be distributed proportionally," she said. "We saw there was a political response instead of a humanitarian or commonsense approach." Blanco retired from politics in 2008 and has been writing her memoir.

"It was so difficult for Gov. Blanco," said Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu. "She never got the credit she deserved at the time and I think in large measure her seat was lost because of it."

Landrieu, the state's senior senator, has been credited as one of the more effective leaders emerging from the Hurricane Katrina experience. She earned a reputation as an advocate for victims in Washington, securing millions in federal dollars for Louisiana to help those displaced by the storm and rebuild along the coast.

"I was tested in almost every way a leader can be," she recalled of the years since the storm. "Every leader I know, including myself, made many mistakes throughout the days and weeks, but I'd like to believe that mine were relatively minor and they were mistakes of the head and not the heart." Landrieu was reelected in 2008.

Indeed, many of the Washington-based representatives from the Gulf region fared best after the storm, experts say.

"They weren't actually here. They didn't have any local authority. Their role was to be an advocate for the area and scream 'Help! Help! Help!' -- but they didn't have the responsibility to clean up the streets," said Brox.

Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter also fared well politically in the wake of the storm. He and Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon, both of whom were in office during Katrina, won their respective state primaries Saturday and will face off in November.

Still, at least one figure on the ground in his home state has been credited as having benefitted from Katrina as much as one can benefit professionally and politically from a disaster: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

"Barbour's leadership initially won him a groundswell of support and he was reelected partly as a result of the perception that he was effective at delivering aid to the state after the storm," said Forgette. "He had an unparalleled rolodex and was able to get people on the phone quickly and cut through the red tape.

Barbour is considered a rising star in the Republican Party and has been exploring a potential presidential bid in 2012.

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