NPR logo Hurricane Irene Leaves Politicians' Careers Intact

Hurricane Irene Leaves Politicians' Careers Intact

President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano listen to Craig Fugate, FEMA director, Aug. 27, 2011. J. Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano listen to Craig Fugate, FEMA director, Aug. 27, 2011.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A couple of years after Hurricane Katrina, in a conversation with a retired Louisiana politician about Katherine Blanco, then his native state's governor, he used an unforgettable phrase.

Blanco, who came to national attention mostly because of her poor response to the 2005 hurricane and didn't run for re-election, had not been term-limited, the former politician joked, but "Katrina-limited."

Katrina was only the largest, most recent example of something politicians have long known but sometimes forget: natural disasters can wreck more than structures; they can ruin political careers, too.

Which is why ever since Katrina, local, state and federal officials have mostly erred on the side of overreacting instead of underreacting to forecasts of hurricanes and winter blizzards.

It's safe to say that few if any politicians or government officials have ever suffered politically for overcautiousness in preparing for and responding to natural disasters.

On the other hand, Blanco, President George W. Bush and Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown are cautionary tales for politicians and emergency preparedness officials. And before them was the decidedly poor snow-removal preparations of one-time Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic, a story which has informed how every occupant of that office for more than 30 years has prepared for blizzards.

So far as we know right now, prominent politicians along the East Coast appear to have weathered Hurricane Irene; it doesn't look like any of them will be Irene-limited, to update the term used by that retired Louisiana politician.

President Obama returned early from his vacation, of course, and toured FEMA headquarters Saturday to show himself fully engaged and the federal response effort moving smartly along.

North Carolina's Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, is getting good marks and not drawing much criticism so far. She was out early urging evacuations and later touring storm-damaged areas of her state where Irene first made its first landfall on the U.S. mainland.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also won praise for his assertive leadership, ordering coastal evacuations, even shutting down Atlantic City's casinos for only third time since gambling became legal there in the late 1970s.

Some suspected he might have been overcompensating for staying at Disneyworld when the state was hit by a blizzard last winter. That only proves that even when a public official does the right thing, his motives will be questioned.

Some New Yorkers criticized Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the aggressive actions the city took, like shutting down its mass transit and evacuating hundreds of thousands from low-lying neighborhoods.

As with Christie, there was some suspicion Bloomberg may have been reacting to criticism for failing to return from the Bahamas when the city was struck by the same blizzard last winter. Bloomberg is term limited, so re-election clearly wasn't his motivation.

David Gergen, an aide in Republican and Democratic White Houses and CNN analyst asked on Twitter which political leaders people thought demonstrated good leadership during Irene. Political leaders up and down the East Coast apparently got plenty of votes.