Cover Story

A Mighty Wind

by Jeremy Alford

Bolstered by the gusts of hurricanes past, Gustav — and possibly Ike — could send a surge of change through Louisiana’s political landscape.

Standing outside the Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans, Gov. Bobby Jindal is with Fox News’ Chris Gutierrez. Gutierrez turns toward Jindal. “Let’s set the scene for the folks across the country,” he says. “We’re outside a bus terminal here in downtown New Orleans, kind of the epicenter of what’s going on. Tell us what’s going on right here.”

It’s Saturday morning, Aug. 30, and Hurricane Gustav is making its way past Cuba, on track for southeastern Louisiana. The scene at Union station is of residents from New Orleans without transportation being loaded onto city buses and Amtrack trains for destinations as far away as Memphis, Tenn. The governor’s office has been busily prepping to announce school closures, find shelter space and help coordinate public transportation for people to begin making their way North (Jindal even got LSU to move up the starting kickoff of its football game to 10 a.m.). Later that afternoon, Jindal will announce contraflow interstate evacuations to begin Sunday, Aug. 31, at 4 a.m., coordinating with eight low-lying parishes — from Calcasieu and Cameron to Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines — to issue mandatory evacuations. By Sunday afternoon, an estimated 1.9 million people will have fled south Louisiana for higher ground  — the largest evacuation in the state’s history.

In a steady stream of news interviews and press conference updates, Jindal will tout the heavy mobilization of state and federal resources on standby, persistently urging residents to take this storm seriously. “People’s lives are at stake,” he tells Gutierrez. “I’d rather they be a little inconvenienced, end up in a shelter hours away from home than try to shelter in place. We saw in 2005 that it makes no sense for people to stay here; there will be no shelter of last resort. We want to evacuate people. I’d love for this to be a false alarm. I hope next week we think this was a great practice run.”

Now more than a week after Gustav made landfall in Louisiana, that’s exactly what it can be called — a successful full-scale evacuation for what turned out to be a much less destructive storm than originally anticipated. While several issues have yet to be fully resolved — notably the Capitol City’s major power outages — Gustav largely proved the government prepared and capable. Fortunately, Gus was no Katrina, nor was it even a Rita.

Now there’s Ike to deal with. At press time Monday, the likes of Gutierrez and the rest of the Great Media Caravan of 2008 — the swell of producers and reporters who came to Louisiana prospecting for news (and left after Gustav with clean clothes still in their suitcases) — were loading up for a return to the Bayou and Lone Star states, Ike’s projected path. While Katrina prompted The New York Times to re-open its New Orleans bureau and CNN to hire a Louisiana reporter, for Gustav the media elite didn’t hang around long enough to bunker down. The thrill was gone for them before the recovery ever started.

With Ike already nipping at its heels, this year’s bedrock storm, however, will leave a lasting impression on Louisiana’s political landscape, much of its heft spillover from the 2005 storm season. For instance, even before Katrina and Rita, Bayou State politicos feared Louisiana was positioned to lose a congressional seat during the 2010 census thanks to outmigration. After the sister storms hit three years ago and pushed out tens of thousands of people, that uncertainty of loss became a smart place to put your money.

Then there was Gustav. How its aftermath might affect the pending decisions of evacuees to keep returning home is unknown, but it will do little to brighten the outlook for Louisiana’s congressional districts. Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport demographer and political analyst, suggests that the added stress on south Louisiana may end up doing more damage to Louisiana’s congressional clout than anyone thinks. “Everything that’s happening now is not only buttressing the notion that we will lose one congressional seat, but also the possibility that we could lose another one the next time. Are we setting ourselves up for a second loss following the 2020 census? That’s where we are. Every hurricane hurts.”

If you listen to the rumblings of Louisiana’s political rumor mill, among the seats likely to be stripped is the lower Acadiana district of U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Napoleonville Democrat. It includes Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, which were ripped asunder by Katrina, as well as Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, the prime target of Gustav. Of course, there’s a lot of positioning and politicking that goes into the redistricting process, from concerns about minority districts to complicated population formulas. A more reliable theory involves the consolidation of districts in north Louisiana, where outmigration figures have outpaced the national average.

As for more immediate impacts, the leading candidates in Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race — incumbent Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and state Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican — pulled their ads from television for most of last week and diverted more money to radio, a wise decision considering the widespread power outages. Congressional primaries, meanwhile, were temporarily put on hold, forcing the candidates to come up with new game plans.

The lack of television and availability of non-hurricane news prevented some conservatives down the bayou from tuning into media coverage of the Republican National Convention and John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Even Gov. Bobby Jindal took a hit. As one of the party’s rising stars, he was scheduled to speak at the convention during prime time last week but skipped the affair to watch Gustav slam into his state.

Still a young buck in GOP terms, Jindal will likely have another shot for stage time in coming years. As a matter of fact, Jindal’s life is peppered with fantastical second chances. He relishes telling the story of how his wife turned him down when he first asked her out; he also had to run for governor twice before voters embraced him. Yet nothing matches the second chance Jindal received as governor from Hurricane Gustav.

The second swing at leadership really belongs to the office of governor; Jindal just happened to be the officeholder during this snapshot of history. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, had the first bite with Katrina and Rita in 2005. Her response and performance is now the stuff of legend, painfully detailed in books and lambasted by media coverage even today. But if it were not for Blanco, and the follies of the federal government, Jindal would not have had a blueprint to follow last week.

And follow it he did. Jindal was calm and collected during his daily briefings, promising residents quick action and rattling figures and statistics off the top of his head. Jindal, the wunderkind policy wonk and Rhodes Scholar, was in his element. Since it was a natural disaster, Jindal’s appearances were tightly scripted, but more times than not the governor’s true self peeked through: cautious, intelligent and thorough.

Jindal’s approval ratings were hovering around 77 percent before Gustav made landfall but likely jumped a bit during the storm. He wisely called for early evacuations, pulled down all the right federal resources and served as a voice of frustration for Louisiana’s citizenry. When discussing possible outcomes for Gustav, Jindal was direct. When explaining the recovery process, he spoke in microscopic detail. When Entergy officials argued that it might take three or more weeks to return power to residents, Jindal called it “unacceptable.”

It was a far cry from the mess Blanco found herself in three years ago. Then again, she was the sacrificial lamb, one of the primary reasons Jindal was able to shine last week and cement his foothold in Louisiana and on the national level. State Sen. Butch Gautreaux, a Morgan City Democrat whose district helped shoulder the brunt of Gustav, says Jindal went “over the top” sometimes to make sure the state was prepared, such as his decision to evacuate all of south Louisiana, but he had a great deal at stake politically. “I understand that [Jindal] was very critical of the way Kathleen Blanco handled the response to Hurricane Katrina, and he wants to make sure things go off without a hitch,” Gautreaux says.

Early analysis of Jindal’s governing style during Gustav seems to be in stark contrast to that of his predecessor. The Times-Picayune recently reported: “some officials who worked both Katrina and Gustav at the emergency center say former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s decision-making style was more fragmented among her top aides, sometimes leading to confusion about what was to be done next. Also, Blanco’s husband, Raymond, was often present at the emergency center during Katrina. The governor would sometimes change her mind on a decision after consulting with him.”

Post-Gustav praise for Jindal at times seems almost too effusive. Political scientist John Pitney Jr., a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, rushed to proclaim La.’s 37-year-old governor the hands down favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 if McCain’s does not win the election this year. “If McCain goes down, Jindal will definitely, almost automatically be the front-runner” he told the Times-Pic. In the same article, Bryan Wagner, chairman of this year’s Louisiana Republican delegation, declares, “God made Bobby Jindal to handle hurricanes. Nobody’s asked me if, like Superman, he’s a strange visitor from another planet, but I’m sure there’s some people thinking that.”

Despite the gushing praise and backslapping, the first-term governor can’t start resting on his laurels. A week after the storm, much of Baton Rouge was still without power, and Hurricane Ike could present a whole new slew of challenges.

While Jindal is thus far a direct beneficiary of the storm, thanks in part to his own performance, Gustav may also bolster the arguments for hurricane protection and restoration projects in the near future. Most notably, there’s Morganza-to-the-Gulf, a protection project spanning dozens of miles and made up of levee systems, dams, locks and other structures — all to protect the Terrebonne-Lafourche central coastline. Good government groups have labeled its $888 million price tag as pork, and the White House has voiced concerns over the design in the past.

State Rep. Gordon Dove, a Houma Republican, says Gustav could give the region enough political capital to not only finish Morganza but also direct resources to similar projects. Port Fourchon in lower Lafourche Parish, where 18 percent of the nation’s energy supply flows through, could likewise serve as a bartering chip. “We stared down the bullet on flooding,” Dove says. “Port Fourchon is going to take a while to come back up, and hopefully that will get the nation’s attention. We sustained this hurricane, but only because it was coming from a certain direction and going a certain speed.”

Acadiana escaped major damage from Gustav, but just the threat of a serious hurricane could help the region continue to build upon its place in the state’s hurricane protection and coastal restoration plans. In this policy arena, southwest Louisiana has traditionally played second-fiddle to the eastern shoreline, overshadowed by the growing needs of the New Orleans region and outpaced by the unified front of the Terrebonne-Lafourche area.

Lately, however, the Acadiana region has seen more projects added to the state’s evolving master plan. Earlier this year, Jindal approved legislation that created an additional seat on the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the state’s guiding coastal board, for southwest Louisiana.

One particular project that deserves more attention, and should receive it thanks to Gustav, calls for building a levee on the outer banks of the Intercoastal Waterway to help deplete storm surges. John T. Landry, a former board member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, says the money has already been budgeted, but the project needs to be redesigned. “When you’re dealing with Congress,” he says, “nothing is easy. We’ve already taken a direct hit from Rita. I don’t know what else it’s going to take.”

Last, but not least, Gustav taught local governments — once and for all — that they have no one to count on but themselves. Federal resources like FEMA and the Red Cross had difficulty pre-positioning supplies, leaving parish leaders to fend for themselves during the first couple of days. “I think it has gotten to a point where we try not to rely on the state and federal governments too much,” says Rep. Damon Baldone, a Houma Democrat. “People rely on themselves down here.”

Even after Gustav blew through, there were problems. For instance, Dana St. Romain, a Red Cross volunteer from Port Allen, admitted last week, the day after Gustav’s landfall, that supplies were running “unusually low.” Another Red Cross shelter 10 miles away in Plaquemine also felt the pinch early in the week, making a public plea for donations. “We’re running out of everything,” Romain said at the time, adding grimly that another 50 to 100 evacuees were expected at the shelters by day’s end.

All of the discomforts caused by the late supplies should be only temporary, but the social, cultural and political aftermath will be lasting. It’s a fact of life Windell Curole, the levee director for both Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, where Hurricane Gustav made landfall last week, understands well.

Curole knows you can’t reason with hurricane season. Nonetheless, he questions Mother Nature. Can she be that brutal? Will the wind and rain destroy our communities? Curole is accustomed to such ponderings.

Last week, just hours before Gustav was expected to emerge from the Gulf of Mexico, Curole was having a particularly difficult time rationalizing the weather. “It just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said while driving to a local hospital to ride out the storm. “I look all around me and everything is green. The water is beautiful. It’s hard to imagine a huge wall of water is about to come and take it all away.”

A week later, Louisiana residents find themselves in the same situation again, this time staring down Hurricane Ike. It’s downright eerie to think that history could be repeating itself only three years after Katrina and Rita forever altered Louisiana’s political landscape

— Additional reporting by Nathan Stubbs