Since Perry took office in 2001, four hurricanes have made direct landfall in Texas. Another, Rita, came by way of Louisiana and caused more than $11 billion in damage. And then there was Katrina, which plowed into New Orleans in August 2005 and pushed hundreds of thousands of evacuees into the arms of Texas.
His brief suspension of his campaign was a made-for-TV moment in which Perry conveyed empathy by clutching the hands of a wildfire evacuee, clambered onto a helicopter for an aerial tour of the damage and pored over maps with his emergency management team. It was also a breezy survey that left most of the details to his response team, allowing Perry to quickly resume his campaign schedule in California, where he will participate in his first presidential debate on Wednesday.
“To those who have been displaced by this fire, to those who have already lost homes — we’re going to do everything we can,” he said Monday at a news conference in Bastrop County, a community perilously close to Austin that has lost nearly 500 homes and 30,000 acres to the blazes in recent days. “Whether it’s putting them up, taking care of them, lovin’ on them — there’s a lot that Texans will do to take care of Texans over the next 72 hours. We will pick up the pieces. We always do.”
Perry’s supporters say that the governor and his administration have built a well-oiled emergency response apparatus — and that Perry’s public style, too, counts for meaningful leadership.
“One of his secrets is he picks really good people and lets them do their job,” said Robert A. Eckels, a Houston lawyer and former county judge who used to lead the county’s emergency response and helped coordinate the sheltering of 250,000 Katrina evacuees from neighboring Louisiana. “People look to the leadership style of a president. He’s going to set the tone and bring in good people and expect them to do their jobs well, and when they don’t, someone else will fill the hole. That’s the kind of leadership style we’ve seen in Texas and you’d see in America under Rick Perry.”
Perry’s critics don’t see it that way. They say the governor’s emergency management amounts to little more than the accumulation of photo ops, and that his “I’m in charge” rhetoric belies how minimal the state’s role really is in confronting natural disasters that are more closely managed by local officials.
Perry generates skepticism with his promises to bring all possible resources to bear when a crisis hits Texas. Obtaining those resources — such as federal disaster assistance — often requires cooperation with congressional leaders and federal agencies that Perry is not known for nurturing. Even when he does pursue federal assistance, doing so stands at odds with his decidedly anti-Washington and pro-tea party campaign message.