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Political storm lingers after Isaac

Special to the Herald-Guide -   Sep 06, 2012

By John Maginnis

Citizens hardly seem to mind that Gov. Bobby Jindal travels a lot to other states, so long as he is home for the hurricanes. Political leaders, of course, are expected to be front and center for emergencies, for those are the times that the people really do want to see them.

First responders performed heroically during and after Hurricane Isaac, while government agencies and officials did what they were supposed to do, which is more than they have in past disasters.

At his televised briefings, the governor’s rapid-fire reading of the number of Humvees mobilized and bottles of water delivered was numbing to follow but reassuring as well. Not on camera, he went in St. John the Baptist Parish at the peak of the hurricane, where he came upon hundreds of flooded-out residents holed up in a church, and ordered their evacuation to shelters.

A favorite whipping boy of past storms, the Corps of Engineers was roundly praised for the performance of its $14 billion in levee improvements around New Orleans, though Sen. David Vitter wants an investigation of whether that caused unusual flooding outside the protected areas.

Less heralded, but deserving recognition, is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which this time lived up to its full name, rather than the four-letter word FEMA, normally uttered with contempt.

That its name came up so little is evidence that it got its job done, quietly but reliably behind the scenes. State and local agencies meet an emergency head on, while FEMA provides technical assistance, deploys federal resources and writes reimbursement checks.

It hasn’t always worked the way it should. Unlike previous director Michael Brown, who dined at Ruth’s Chris while thousands were stranded on rooftops after Katrina, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was on the trail of Isaac since the storm crossed the U.S. Virgin Islands and was waiting for it at landfall in Louisiana. The agency began processing financial assistance applications for the most affected individuals and businesses the day after the governor made a formal request. Fugate had the governor’s back, figuratively and literally, standing at a press conference directly behind Jindal, who asked him to "say a few words," but gave bare mention to FEMA’s role.

Most of what the governor said about the federal response was to criticize President Barack Obama for not doing more.

When the president initially issued an emergency declaration for 16 parishes, the governor said he should include 19 more, which Obama did the next day. Jindal also said the federal government should cover all state and local storm preparation costs, beyond the 75-25 percent share set by the president. But that was the same split ordered after Hurricane Gustav in 2008 by former President George W. Bush, which Jindal did not criticize at the time.

When called on that, the governor responded, "We learned from past experiences, you just can’t wait. You’ve got to push the federal bureaucracy."

When push comes to shove, however, federal law will decide. Going by the thresholds in the Stafford Act, based on damage reports and population, the state has yet to qualify for a 90-10 percent split, though it might once a post-storm assessment is completed.

The good news is that if the state can make the case for 90 percent federal reimbursement, the governor won’t have to ask Congress to appropriate the money. The more ready and able FEMA has $1.5 billion in its disaster relief fund, due largely to Sen. Mary Landrieu, who chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. To secure that, she had to do battle with House Republicans, including vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who wanted the funding offset with reductions to other parts of the budget. Enough Republicans from around the country, having seen their districts ravaged by tornadoes, wild fires and floods, sided with Landrieu.

Democratic partisans went overboard as well by calling Mitt Romney a hypocrite for making a post-convention tour of flooded Louisiana parishes.

Overall, the post-hurricane dust-ups were not surprising—-actually, less than expected-—amidst the acrimony of the presidential election season. And it will pass. Compared to the real work done to meet the storm, the lingering political arguments, as tempests go, amount to a summer squall, spewing more hot wind than hard rain.

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