By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
BATON ROUGE, Sept. 2 -- He talks about "helo assets," military-speak for helicopters. He delivers recovery statistics rapid-fire. And in a nod to local sporting passions, he frequently resorts to football analogies.
"The evacuation was the pregame," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) announced at a press conference Tuesday, appearing calm and unruffled amid the commotion of Hurricane Gustav. "We're not yet at halftime. We have a lot more work ahead of us."
Thrust in the spotlight by Gustav, Jindal, 37, a political whiz kid in office for all of eight months, is asserting mastery over his state's response to the natural disaster -- just the sort that can have serious consequences for politicians.
Three years ago, Jindal's predecessor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), sometimes seemed overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina, nervous and frowning before the cameras. Her popularity slumped afterward, and she chose not to run for reelection.
Now Jindal, a rising star in the Republican Party whose name was once bandied about as a potential running mate for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), is at the helm as Louisiana weathers Gustav. He had been scheduled to address the Republican National Convention but canceled his plans as the storm loomed.
"Bobby Jindal has been pitch perfect during Gustav," said Douglas Brinkley, who wrote "The Great Deluge," which describes the chaos after Katrina. "He promised to be a hands-on administrator, and I think he delivered. He had such an easy factual grasp of the situation. It's almost the exact opposite of Blanco and [New Orleans Mayor C. Ray] Nagin during Katrina."
Gustav presented a far lesser challenge than Katrina did: The levees didn't break, and New Orleans didn't go under. But whether Louisiana has triumphed over a potentially catastrophic storm or whether the state had a bit of meteorological luck is a matter of political debate.
At the 25-minute news conference Tuesday morning, Jindal emphasized that Hurricane Gustav was a major disaster.
"This is a serious storm that has caused serious damage in our state," Jindal said. "We're pleased we haven't seen breaches in the levees. We're pleased we haven't seen major flooding in New Orleans or the places that flooded before. But there are serious challenges."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, speaking immediately after Jindal, likened Gustav to Katrina.
"I just want to echo what the governor said about the seriousness of the storm," Chertoff said. "Yesterday I got a number of questions in which people seemed to say, 'Well, wasn't it really kind of like a false alarm?' Nothing could be further from the truth. This storm came ashore as -- depending on who you listen to -- as either a low Category 3 or a high Category 2, which is frankly comparable to Katrina in terms of intensity."
Regardless of whether Gustav was anything like Katrina, Jindal has proved adept at handling voluminous details of the recovery and the minutiae of the bureaucracy. Since becoming the state's secretary of health and hospitals at 24, he has enjoyed a reputation as being on the fast track.
As the storm approached, Jindal was caught up in a whirlwind of activity, sending off medical evacuation teams at an airport and seeing off others at a bus departure point. Since the storm hit, he has charged into news conferences with lists -- of search-and-rescue stations, of federal agencies contacted, of fuel and food deliveries.
"There will be an 18-wheeler of food, an 18-wheeler of water, an 18-wheeler of ice and 18-wheeler of tarps at these locations," he says.
The Department of Transportation and Development "has 500 individuals and 92 crews with 36 front-end loaders, 36 backhoes, several hundred chain saws. They're clearing interstates and bridges. DOTD has 13 teams of 32 people each doing bridge inspections . . . Last night I requested Category A assistance from FEMA," he continues.
And on he goes at a breakneck pace.
He notes that more than 1.9 million people evacuated the state's coastal parishes, which he called the largest evacuation in U.S. history. He notes the many medical patients evacuated.
He leaves it to others to contend that the only difference between Gustav and Katrina is that people were ready this time around.
"The reason that you're not seeing dramatic stories of rescues is because we had a successful evacuation," Chertoff said.
But others are somewhat skeptical.
"Just because a person does well in a Category 1 storm that steers between major population centers doesn't mean he wouldn't crack in a Katrina," Brinkley said. "But Jindal showed great calm and intelligence during the storm."