At my site, which covers Louisiana politics, we’re not doing a 10-year anniversary thing about Hurricane Katrina, which blew through Southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi gulf coast at the end of August 2005. Our readers are not asking for one.
But on Monday Wlady Pleszczynski asked me to offer a perspective on Katrina as we mark that ugly historical event, and I notice this week that the major media is taking a great deal of ghoulish pleasure in revisiting all the horrors Mother Nature inflicted on New Orleans and the surrounding area in that horrible time, with the long and painful recovery that still isn’t complete.
So while this is a command performance rather than a labor of love, I offer a handful of items with a perspective you probably won’t hear elsewhere amid the media hurricane, in two parts.
In this installment, we’ll attack the question of who actually gets the blame here in Louisiana for the poor Katrina response.
You probably heard an enormous amount of screaming from various refugee-on-the-street interviews in the Katrina aftermath, particularly in New Orleans. Most of that centered around how terrible George W. Bush and the federal government was. It was an easy narrative for the national media to build.
But the truth is, most of us in Louisiana didn’t have great expectations of the federal government when that storm hit. I’m not saying Bush gets great marks, and you’ll hear plenty about the feds in this space in the next installment, but he’s never been seen by people here as the villain the national press cut him out to be.
The villains here were the local officials, all Democrats, whose responsibility it was to prepare and execute a storm response.
For example, there was Ray Nagin, the utterly shiftless and incompetent New Orleans mayor who failed to evacuate his most vulnerable people and created a Third World disaster scene at the Superdome as a result. Nagin’s lasting image from the storm can be found in the iconic photographs of flooded school buses parked in neat rows thanks to his failure to use them, and his soundtrack remains the audio of his lunatic phone interviews from the penthouse suite at the destroyed Hyatt Regency hotel adjacent to the Superdome, in which he accused the CIA of plotting his assassination amid the destruction of his city. Nagin is currently in federal prison for bribery during his second term in office; he was able to beat current mayor (and subject of a future column in this space) Mitch Landrieu in the 2006 election solely on the strength of his playing the “Chocolate City” race card.
And there was Aaron Broussard, the Democrat president of next-door Jefferson Parish. Broussard was most famous for a weepy rant on national television in which he lamented the demise of his emergency management director’s mother in a nursing home east of the city. Broussard alleged that the elderly woman perished after the storm due to the federal government’s inability to rescue her, and that was a bald-faced lie; the nursing home in question took at least 10 feet of water from the initial storm surge and all who had not evacuated died on the first night.
Broussard’s record on evacuations in his own parish wasn’t the greatest; after all, he evacuated all of the parish’s pump operators before the storm and the resulting inoperability of the pumps in Metairie and Kenner did millions of dollars of unnecessary property damage. Broussard is, by the way, also in federal prison on corruption charges unrelated to Katrina. Jefferson Parish’s president is now a Republican; there is limited prospect of Democrat control of the parish any time in the foreseeable future.
But most of all there was the governor. Kathleen Blanco was a perfect example of the military “six P’s” acronym, having failed to follow the process to secure federal help before the storm. As such, while resources sat waiting following Katrina, Blanco presided over a thoroughly inept emergency response that played out on national television, and two days after the levees broke she was holding press conferences with Jesse Jackson and representatives from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan government.
When the public began to notice how ineffective she was, her media flacks started pushing out a narrative blaming the whole thing on the Bush administration — and when that started to gain purchase she promptly blew it up by getting caught on a hot CNN mic admitting she “should have called in the military” sooner.
While that didn’t quite go as viral nationally as it should, everyone in Louisiana knew about it and it finished Blanco’s political career. If she isn’t the least-visible former American governor this side of Rod Blagojevich, she’s close; she didn’t even run for re-election in 2007. In fact, the Democrats went two cycles without fielding a legitimate candidate as Bobby Jindal rode to easy electoral wins.
The Democratic Party hasn’t won a statewide election in Louisiana since 2008, when Mary Landrieu managed re-election to the Senate. Even she is gone now. Katrina was the turning point and the death of the party, particularly among white voters. The evacuation of many New Orleans residents, many of whom found far better lives elsewhere than in the hellhole housing projects in that city, changed the state’s demographics for the worse from a Democrat standpoint and moved Louisiana to the right.
And to add insult to injury, the state’s elections department scrubbed the voter rolls of dead people and those who had moved away following the storm. Not only were the numbers down in New Orleans among live bodies, without the extra entries at the registrar’s office there was no way to inflate turnout for the statewide elections.
Nationally, Katrina might be blamed on Bush. Locally, the poor response to the storm is an albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party. You won’t hear that in the media blitz this week.
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