NEW ORLEANS -- Last week, as Hurricane Gustav, the national news and the McCain campaign quickly swept north together out of the Gulf Region, they left in their wake a state reeling from damage and destruction and haven't looked back.
The bar was set high for public and political interest in this natural disaster, would New Orleans flood or not? Would President Bush or Senator McCain display the incompetence and negligence that followed Hurricane Katrina? The severity of Katrina and its aftermath did not apparently make the case for increased concern on the impact of hurricanes on Americans in the region; it only made the immediate response to a hurricane a political test.
Senator McCain and the GOP did not hesitate to "take the test" and politicize this approaching threat, shamelessly using the danger of Katrina as a photo op for himself and Governor Palin though doing so in Mississippi...which by the way, was not even in the path of the storm.
Senator McCain even went so far as to float the possibility that he might deliver his acceptance speech to the GOP Convention by satellite from a flooded New Orleans. Governor Rick Perry of Texas appeared on the national news praising "Republican governors" for their handling of the situation, saying, "that's what we do." The GOP Convention revised and dialed back the opening night of their convention, explaining that they could not in good conscience have celebrations and exhibit strong partisanship in the face of Gustav nearing New Orleans. The talking point was, "At a time like this, we take off our Republican hat and put on our American hat." A very telling sentiment, their describing it as an "either/or" proposition.
Is the GOP being unfairly pointed at for neglecting Louisiana while the Democrats are being unfairly let off the hook? When a party holds a convention, it dominates the news, the other party is pushed out of the spotlight. Had Gustav hit during the Democratic convention, the onus to respond and keep the situation visible would've been on them.
The RNC did join in on contributing to relief efforts, helping to package the donations of toiletries and prepackaged foods donated by Target for shipping to Louisiana. They, as well as Senator Obama's campaign, solicited their supporters for donations to assist those impacted by Gustav. No figures are currently available on the total amount of contributions received by the RNC or Senator Obama's campaign in this effort.
As we now know, Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana but New Orleans did not flood so "the test" was called on account of not enough rain -- or not enough broken levies. No further mention of a need to help Louisiana was expressed after Monday at the GOP Convention. However, the damage to houses and buildings, the loss of electricity to nearly one million homes, the blocking of major roads and highways, the closure of most markets and shortage of groceries, the evacuation and homelessness of hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residence still took place and continues to take place. Additionally, a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was instituted and continues in the most populated parish in the state, East Baton Rouge Parish.
On last Tuesday, one day after Gustav and "at a time like this", the GOP Convention eagerly dove back into the divisive politics and extravagant parties which they had deemed inappropriate just one day before with the explanation that doing so in the face of so many people suffering was inappropriate...even though over a half million people were in fact suffering the severe effects of Gustav on that day. Out of sight, out of political advantage and thus, out of mind.
Unfortunately, the hardships that Hurricane Gustav brought to Louisiana are not linked to the amount of attention they receive from the GOP or the national media. Despite many days of having to go without electricity, gas and groceries, residents of Louisiana may be stressed but many simply adapt to the difficulties as they have in the past. They tap into the cans of beans and jars of peanut butter in their pantries for meals and collaborate with their friends and neighbors to help each other through this challenging time. There may be many serious conflicts and issues in the state at other times but as was shown after Katrina, the people of Louisiana come together after a disaster as a compassionate, generous and resilient community.
Many if not most New Orleans residents have returned to the city which, unlike the more populous capitol city of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, has most of its electricity restored. According to the Louisiana energy company, Entergy, there is not as yet a concrete estimate as to when power will be restored to all of Baton Rouge, some will be restored this week, some may take up to three more weeks. Entergy describes this outage as virtually unprecedented, "Hurricane Gustav caused the second largest system peak number of outages in company history, behind only Hurricane Katrina. Gustav restoration rivals the scale and difficulty of Hurricane Katrina restoration." As of today, 206,080 homes remain without any electricity in this state with a population of 4.5 million people (multiply most homes by multiple family members to consider how huge the percentage is of people in Louisiana that are still affected by this).
Keep in mind that it's now one week since Hurricane Gustav hit. About 41% of customers in Louisiana's most populated parish, East Baton Rouge Parish, are still without power, it's in the 80's and 90's there with the usual humidity and there is no air conditioning or operating refrigerators in those homes. Even so, Louisiana responded and is rebounding far more quickly than was the case with Katrina.
On the whole, the sentiment by many residents is that lessons were learned from Katrina, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal's performance has been applauded by both Democrats and Republicans for taking control of the situation and taking the energy companies to task on performance. Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans and Democratic Mayor Kip Holden of Baton Rouge are similarly viewed as performing well in response to the hurricane. A side note to this is that President Bush has been aggressive in assisting efforts and visited Louisiana swiftly in response to Gustav, unquestionably as a result of his neglect after Katrina. It is interesting that, now having a Republican as Governor in the state, Bush's cooperation has come without the same conditions and demands for control that accompanied his terms for assistance when a Democrat was governor.
The only exception to improved performance to the devastation of a hurricane is again FEMA, which made a problematic decision to stage its relief efforts in Texas and in the face of downed trees and other debris blocking roads coming into the state of Louisiana, it was not able to deliver badly needed blue tarps, water, and MREs until days after Gustav and apparently still has not done so in sufficient quantity.
With Hurricane Ike appearing to follow a similar path to Gustav's, Gov. Jindal is now asking residents to once again stock up on food, water and other supplies but this is made even more difficult by the limited availability of open markets and groceries.
And so, the "test" may begin anew and Louisiana may once more be swiftly in then out of the national and political consciousness if it again "underperforms," disappointing the media and political parties with another anti-climactic non-drowning of a major city. The best bet to weather the current and future devastation by the more powerful storms and hurricanes generated each season may be to live in a swing state...then the aftermath might really matter.