The destruction that Hurricane Harvey has brought to Texas and Louisiana has inspired lots of comparisons to Hurricane Katrina. Like it was 12 years ago, a fabled and historic American city is underwater. Tens of thousands are in emergency shelters. Businesses are shutdown with power and other utilities inoperable. Adding to the mix are the dramatic rescues by emergency personnel, the U.S. Coast Guard, neighbors and inspired Good Samaritans that are occurring around the clock with social media and 24-7 media to capture it.
The disaster is certainly unlike anything we’ve seen since 2005, and its effects will be with us for decades. But there is something I think is worth noting when trying to compare the events of Katrina and Harvey, and in truth, it is the most important factor of all – leadership.
As someone who worked at DHS during Hurricane Katrina and was deployed to the Gulf Coast to support response and recovery operations for several months, I come to this issue with more than a bit of bias and jadedness. Whereas 12 years ago, the executive leadership in the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans could not have been more dysfunctional and antagonistic to one another, today the Governor of Texas and Mayor of Houston have been the picture of cooperation, working together to make the right things happen. That mutual respect and functionality brings with it a measure of calm, focus, attention and “espirit de corps.” As unquantifiable as those resources may be, they are deep a reservoir to draw from when the adrenaline drops off and lack of sleep brings fatigue and exhaustion.
Have Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner agreed on every decision since Harvey started to pelt Texas with rain? My guess is probably not, but I don’t think there is doubt that these two public servants and their teams are working together to rectify a disaster situation that can only be described as Biblical in proportions.
When I compare what I’ve watched over the past few days with what I saw and experienced in Baton Rouge and New Orleans in 2005, the disasters are not even close. During Katrina, there were two leaders (then-Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin) who were openly contemptuous of one another. For reasons that defied logic and order, the two couldn’t seem to agree on anything. That leadership dysfunction only exacerbated an already problematic situation.
As I recall from my observations and experiences of 12 years ago, I think it would have been easier to negotiate land and water rights between the Israelis and Palestinians than to get those two leaders to meet in the middle on anything. To me, their shortcomings in leadership made an unprecedented and difficult situation even worse. While their poor behavior (and those of many of their senior aides) may have made for juicy news stories and reality TV, it was an obstacle to progress.
I think that is why if you ask most Americans where “Ground Zero” was for Katrina, most will respond with New Orleans, when in fact the real Ground Zero was in Bay St. Louis / Pass Christian, Mississippi – nearly 60 miles east of the Crescent City where the major force of Katrina came ashore. Those areas of Mississippi were downtown Hiroshima in August 1945 when compared to the flood waters and ruin in New Orleans and the surrounding area. To me, the real difference in how Mississippi and Louisiana responded to the storm came down to leadership.
As different as their Southern dialects, politics, perspectives and SEC allegiances may have been, then-State Governor Haley Barbour and the Mississippi Coast leaders worked together during and after the storm to make things right for their residents. And it made all the difference in the world.
As waterlogged as Texas is right now, the Lone Star State is in good hands. The leadership of Governor Abbott and Mayor Turner (and their respective teams) have shown gives me a lot of confidence for the future. It will make their jobs and those of the FEMA/DHS Team and all of the hands reporting on deck to help the state recover that much easier. Does it mean that everything will be perfect and that the governor and mayor are going to be in lockstep on every issue going forward? Probably not, but given that the only drama we’ve seen is the only drama that really matters and deserves our attention (e.g., people in distress, needing help and getting the assistance), rather than the drama of ill-matched personalities and bruised, swelled egos, makes an already challenging circumstance that much more workable.
It’s a lesson I saw exhibited by USCG Commandant Thad Allen, as well as any number of FEMA, public safety, state, local and private sector personnel who worked to get the Gulf Coast up and going again after Katrina. It’s something we are also seeing exhibited today by FEMA Administrator Brock Long, Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke, and the entire FEMA and DHS team as they grapple with an unprecedented situation. Leadership that works together truly matters and makes the ultimate difference.
Texas, courtesy of a bad hombre called “Harvey,” will prove that again.