Editorial: In a disaster, leadership matters


When it comes to disaster response, leadership at the state level is everything. Just look at the oil spill.

Governors from the Gulf Coast states were the main figures meeting with BP executives after the disaster, taking them on tours of the affected areas and calling them on the phone to insist that more be accomplished sooner. Sure, the president dropped by a few times, but by and large the governors were the major figures on the front lines.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, for instance, asked claims czar Ken Feinberg a question that Mr. Feinberg would later relate to CNN: “Look me in the eye, Ken, and tell me, ‘Are you going to do right by the people of Alabama?’”

That question, coming as it did from the mouth of a governor, resonated.

Indeed, the governors were the ones setting the stage for how the initial cleanup was handled in their respective states and where the grant money was directed. Keith Seilhan, BP’s Mobile incident commander, told the Press-Register editorial board last week that he was surprised by the strong role politics played, and by how differently the states reacted in the aftermath of the spill.

For instance, Florida leapt into action with its well-coordinated State Emergency Response Team, calling officials from various agencies to their other roles as disaster team members. In contrast, Louisiana’s response was fragmented, with nine parishes calling nine different shots and creating a multitude of opportunities for infighting.

Then there’s Hurricane Katrina and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Gov. Barbour’s leadership and savvy, learned from years on Capitol Hill, landed billions of dollars in relief money for his home state in the wake of the devastating storm. He was also instrumental in coordinating the response effort along with a commission of coastal leaders.

One Republican official from Gulfport said of Gov. Barbour, “He is to Katrina what Rudy Giuliani was to 9/11.”

There’s a lesson here for Alabamians and Mississippians. Voters attempting to wade through the gubernatorial campaign rhetoric this year (Alabama) and next (Mississippi) should try to envision the candidates taking charge in the wake of a disaster.

For a state located on the Gulf of Mexico, that may be the most important call to action a governor gets. The BP oil spill has illustrated just how much it matters, when things go wrong, to have the right person at the helm of state government.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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