Louisiana governor Jindal takes active role in dealing with spill

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; A01

OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO -- Strapped into a National Guard Black Hawk, peering down at green water mottled with oil sheen, the most serious man in Louisiana is starting to sound ridiculous.

Over the helicopter's intercom, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is explaining to the mayor of New Orleans about two of the state's efforts to keep back the oil slick. One is named for a Mexican-food entree. The other is named for a Cajun sausage.

The "burrito levee" and the "boudin bag" are part of a vast effort, overseen by Jindal, to hold back a slick that is already spitting up tar balls onto the state's coast. He also has a plan to create more Louisiana, building new barrier islands in the oil's path.

"It makes so much sense. It's so obvious. We gotta do it," Jindal said into his headphones. His call for a major government response stands in apparent contrast to his previous calls for small government.

Indeed, in a crisis marked by desperate improvisation -- where the search for solutions has turned to golf balls and top hats -- nobody is matching Jindal's frenetic vigor. Local observers say the oil spill is testing the promise that almost three years ago made this son of Indian immigrants governor: that he could keep his catastrophe-scarred state safe, through good data and hard work.

"He's there because of Katrina, he's there because of the failed response to a disaster, and I think he recognizes that," said Kirby Goidel, a political science professor at Louisiana State University. "He absolutely has sort of over-learned that mistake."

On Monday, Jindal said his state would not slow its response, despite the news that the oil company BP was siphoning about 1,000 barrels of oil a day out of a pipe that began leaking around April 22 -- a fraction of the total spill.

"We are nowhere close to the finish line," Jindal said in a statement. He noted that oil has already been found along 29 miles of the state's coast: "Oil continues to pour into the gulf and hit our shores."

Jindal, 38, has been governor since 2008, capping a political rise that started when he was appointed at age 24 to head the state's Department of Health and Hospitals. He still struggles with political aesthetics: In the first days after the crisis, Jindal showed up wearing a blue blazer at a news conference in a broiling marsh. Only recently has he donned the standard governor-in-crisis uniform of rolled-up shirt sleeves.

And Jindal was widely thought to have blown his first real test as a national politician. Last year, he was chosen to give the Republican response to President Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress. But his speech -- urging smaller government and criticizing money for monitoring another source of natural disasters, volcanoes -- was criticized as flat and over-familiar.

But now, Jindal's skills seem as right for this moment as they were wrong for that one.

"Bobby Jindal is a first-class, straight-A warrior," said Chris Moran, who owns a marina, a restaurant and a charter-fishing business in the oil-field hub of Port Fourchon, La. He said he liked that Jindal had visited his area (although Moran wished the governor had stayed for a steak) and admired his efforts to have National Guardsmen use huge sandbags to plug up holes that bring gulf water into inland marshes. "He's probably the most-suited governor for a natural disaster."

Jindal's response to the crisis has differed from that of the Republican star next door, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. Barbour has played down the threat and urged tourists not to cancel trips to his state's beach towns.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Barbour compared the spill to the sheen of gasoline from a water-ski boat.

"We don't wash our face in it, but it doesn't stop us from jumping off the boat to ski," he said.

Jindal, by contrast, has treated the spill as an existential threat, saying repeatedly that what's at stake "is a way of life for us."

To fight it, he has assigned himself a catchall role that includes spotting oil sheen from National Guard helicopters, badgering the federal government for money and supplies, and giving hyper-detailed news conferences.

In one appearance in New Orleans on Friday, he gave updates on the size of tar balls washing up in Port Fourchon (up to eight inches), the number of sandbags to be air-dropped (1,200) and state money spent to date ($3.7 million). He also provided a weather forecast ("The winds continue to come out of the southeast, 10 to 15 knots").

Jindal has emphasized, repeatedly, that Louisiana isn't waiting for anyone else's help. He has touted the benefits of homegrown designs, like the boudin (pronounced boo-DAN) bags -- long, sand-filled booms that lie on beach sand -- and burrito levees, which are boudin bags covered in another layer of sand.

"One of the mistakes that we made [during Katrina], we maybe waited on somebody to help us," said Mitch Landrieu (D), the newly elected mayor of New Orleans, who has appeared at Jindal's side at a number of press events.

Jindal's biggest idea: building a protective line of islands, called sand booms, using mud dredged from the gulf bottom. The governor has said that if the federal government signs off on the plan, land could emerge from the gulf within 10 days. That plan has raised objections from environmentalists, who say that it has not been properly vetted.

State Rep. Sam Jones (D) said he thought Jindal's response was at odds with his previous calls for limited government.

"No small government . . . can go rebuild a barrier island," Jones said.

Jindal's staff responded that, ultimately, BP will pay for all of this government action. "The federal government makes billions off of our coast and doesn't share with the state the way they do with onshore drilling," said Melissa Sellers, Jindal's communications director. "Of course we want the federal government to hold BP accountable. That's their job."

A more basic objection comes from oil-spill experts. They say it will be very difficult to protect all of the state's maze of coastal marshes, especially if hurricanes help push oily water ashore.

"For the cost involved, the chances of being successful at doing any good . . . are minuscule," said Jerome Milgram, a professor at MIT.

On Friday, Jindal took off in an open-sided National Guard helicopter from a far, swampy corner of New Orleans. In a few minutes, the helicopter was over the Chandeleur Islands, an arc of sand and swamps miles out in the gulf. Around one island, the water was unnaturally shiny.

"You've got some sheen over here to the left," Jindal said over the intercom. "Make a note where we see sheen."

As they flew, Jindal laid out the state's plans -- the boudin and the burritos and the sandbags -- to a collection of local officials strapped in around him. After he had finished, Landrieu spoke up.

"At the end of the day, they've gotta cap this well, period," he said. "And they better hurry."

"Amen," the governor said.

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