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La. governor, New Orleans mayor are praised

If Hurricane Katrina was one big lesson in government bungling, Gustav has been an open-book test of whether the politicians learned anything from the disaster.
/ Source: The Associated Press

If Hurricane Katrina was one big lesson in government bungling, Gustav has been an open-book test of whether the politicians learned anything from the disaster.

And so far, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mayor Ray Nagin are getting high marks.

In the days leading up to Gustav, Jindal and Nagin persuaded a sometimes complacent populace to get out well ahead of the storm. They didn't mince words; they didn't hedge bets. In the end, they were credited with overseeing the exodus of 2 million people in one of the biggest and smoothest evacuations in U.S. history.

That take-charge attitude in a crisis could bring political rewards, especially for Jindal, a 37-year-old Republican once mentioned as a potential running mate for John McCain.

"You've got a governor who took charge," said Jim Duffy, a Louisiana native and national political consultant who has worked for several Louisiana Democrats. "It helps him a great deal. He already had a reputation of being this wunderkind."

Rising star in GOP
Marc Rotterman, a GOP media strategist based in North Carolina, said: "Bobby Jindal is a rising star in the Republican Party. He's handled himself very well under very stressful conditions in regards to Hurricane Gustav. The contrast to his predecessor is startling."

"I think it's too early to talk about the presidency," Rotterdam added, "but if he wants to be, he'll be a player for the next several decades."

There are still plenty of things that could go wrong and cause public opinion to turn against the governor and the mayor.

For example, nearly 1.2 million homes and businesses across Louisiana are without electricity, and officials said it could take a month to restore power to everyone. Also, many evacuees are furious they had to wait at least two days before being allowed to return. Some may refuse to leave if another hurricane menaces Louisiana in the coming weeks.

But so far, the contrast with Katrina has been spectacular.

Nagin was bitterly criticized for not ordering New Orleans evacuated until the day before Katrina hit, and for what some saw as erratic leadership as the city slipped into anarchy. Katrina also proved to be the political ruin of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who decided not to seek re-election after she was widely seen as weak, indecisive and incapable of working with the Bush administration during the crisis.

Mandatory evacuations
This time, authorities began moving people out of harm's way on the Saturday before Gustav's Monday morning arrival. Jindal and Nagin issued mandatory evacuation orders covering the entire Louisiana coast, including all of New Orleans, a city of roughly 300,000. Jindal activated 3,000 National Guardsmen to provide security and help move people out.

In another lesson learned from Katrina, state, local and federal authorities evacuated hospitals and nursing homes and put the poor, the ill and the elderly on buses and trains out of town.

Nagin also declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew and loudly warned that anyone caught stealing or breaking into homes would go straight to the notorious state prison at Angola, not local jails.

In the end, Gustav struck only a glancing blow to New Orleans, and the levees held. Gustav was blamed for a mere 16 deaths in the U.S. — compared with 1,600 along the Gulf Coast during Katrina — and authorities said one reason is that authorities moved people out of the danger zone.

"This was excellent. On a 1 to 10, I give it 9. What they learned they learned from Katrina, that's why this one has run so well," said LeRoy Hartley, a defense attorney who waited out both storms in his elegant home on high ground a few blocks from the French Quarter.

Jindal, a former federal administrator under President Bush, came across as calm, organized and decisive. In his appearances in the days before and after the storm, he showed a thorough understanding of the logistics of emergency response. Nagin, too, appeared resolute.

"Nagin was out of control last time, and he was much more in control this time," said former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, like Jindal a Republican.

Politics left out of it
What might have benefited the politicians the most was leaving politics out of it — at least during the storm — since personality and political differences clearly added to the deadly bungling in 2005.

Nagin and Jindal were said to have a distant relationship before Gustav; some political observers suspect Jindal did not want to be associated with the Katrina fiasco. But that apparently did not prevent the two men from maintaining a working relationship during Gustav. In fact, an aide to Jindal worked out of the mayor's office during the storm to speed communication.

"There was a sense of nonpartisan working together this time, where politics wasn't in the middle of it," said Ron Faucheux, a Louisiana native and longtime political consultant. Voters "want people to hunker down and do their jobs. Performance is good politics."

Nagin is prevented by term limits from running again. And outside of New Orleans, which re-elected him despite Katrina, many in Louisiana have not forgiven him for the devastation of the city.

Duffy said he does not see any statewide political future for Nagin. But the mayor's handling of the latest crisis could at least enhance his political standing in New Orleans and help him get things done as mayor of this city, which is still struggling to rebuild.

As for the governor, Duffy and other observers said they suspect it was Jindal who made the decisions to move faster. Jindal executed the contract for buses to remove the evacuees, and wasted no time in calling out the Guard.

"Jindal will and should receive a large share of the credit for a job well done. This guy, when he gets his mind made up to get it done right, he gets it done right," Roemer said.