There were certain things we knew about Bobby Jindal before Hurricane Gustav. We knew he was incredibly young to lead a state, especially one as diverse and politically cantankerous as Louisiana. We knew he was very bright, that he was well-spoken, and that he had a pretty wife. Shortly after coming into office Jindal scored a big political coup by passing long-sought ethics reforms. For the most part, his future seemed golden. Then came Hurricane Gustav, the first major test of his administration. Just as Hurricane Katrina undermined Gov. Blanco’s political career, many people worried that Jindal would not rise to the occasion. So, how has he done? So far, it seems he’s done pretty darn well.
Of course, this is a preliminary judgment and there remains a lot of clean up work still to do. Much of Baton Rouge and other parts of the state remain without power, and there has been major infrastructural damage all over the state. Moreover, with Hurricane Ike threatening to thrash the Gulf Coast again we are hardly out of the woods. Nevertheless, at this point I think it is fair to say that the overall response to this storm at the state and local level has been night and day different from the chaos that followed Katrina three years ago, and much of that has to do with the man in the governor’s office.
It all started with the evacuation of coastal Louisiana, a massive undertaking in which state and local authorities moved coaxed, cajoled, and dragged some two million people out of multiple parishes in South Louisiana. But even more impressive than that is the fact that that figure, 2 million people, represents roughly 90 percent of the people in the parishes where evacuation orders were issued. Let that number sink in for a second. To give you an idea of the significance of that 90 percent figure, let’s imagine that Homeland Security uncovered credible evidence that a tactical nuke was about to go off somewhere in or around New York City, and that as a result they had to evacuate the entire New York metropolitan area, which has a population of nearly 19 million people. (Sorry for the Wiki link, but it’s the only number I could find) Let’s also imagine that they had to get this done in less than a week. This would be the equivalent of getting roughly 17 million of those 19 million people out of the area in less than a week. Does anyone think that would even be remotely possible? To put it another way, the evacuation in Louisiana moved more people out of endangered areas than the total number of people who live in Delaware and Alaska combined.
Jindal got the ball rolling by issuing mandatory evacuation orders for most of the Louisiana coast, by calling up 3,000 National Guardsmen before the storm. He also contracted for hundreds of buses to evacuate poor and indigent residents of New Orleans and other places. But perhaps the biggest factor in making this evacuation a success was the fact that state and local officials agreed not to set up shelters of last resort in evacuated areas. Many Louisiana officials believed that the existence of such shelters, including the Superdome in New Orleans, encouraged people to try to ride out Hurricane Katrina three years ago. This time there were no such shelters, and as a result nearly everyone who could leave on their own did so. Those who did not have access to personal transportation could ride on one of the 700 buses that the state contracted for $7 million to move sick and needy residents.
To be sure, Bobby Jindal isn’t the only one responsible for this remarkably successful operation. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, whose handling of the last crisis was widely (and somewhat unfairly) criticized, got a chance for something few discredited politicians ever get: personal redemption. For the most part, he took advantage of that opportunity by moving aggressively to implement a thorough evacuation of the Crescent City. But giving Nagin his due does not detract anything from Jindal. In fact, the two have worked in close cooperation with each other. Jindal even had an aid working in the mayor’s office as a liaison, something that never would have happened under Blanco.
Since the storm Governor Jindal has been working with incredible energy and determination to get Louisiana back on its feet. A massive amount of work remains to be done, but it helps Louisiana residents to know that their governor is an aggressive advocate for their welfare. Although a loyal republican, Jindal hasn’t been afraid to rip the federal response when he feels it has been wanting. His comments about FEMA have been measured but sometimes biting. At the same time, he has been careful not to make it personal, or to engage in bureaucratic infighting with Washington, as Blanco did during Katrina, which alienated the very people Louisiana would need in order to get through this ordeal, and even drew criticism from fellow Democrat Ray Nagin.
It also helps to know that we have a governor who is so obviously on top of things. Watching or listening to a Jindal press conference on TV or radio can be either impressive or daunting depending on your perspective. The following video is a case in point:
The sheer breadth of data that the governor seems to have at his finger tips at any moment, and the speed at which he spits out sentences and paragraphs, is both impressive and intimidating. At times he risks subjecting the press to information overload, as a dozen facts and statistics come tumbling out of his mouth every minute. If this were a less serious time such verbosity might make him appear arrogant. Indeed, the governor does have a reputation for being a bit of a “know-it-all.” But in this situation it is comforting to know that the guy in charge sounds like a know-it-all because he actually does know it all, or at least far more than anybody else. Of course, if he ever runs for national office he will have to moderate the speed of his delivery. Some people joke that Jindal goes through one sign language interpreter every week because they all get carpal tunnel syndrome. Watching the poor woman in this video, I think it might actually be true: