The Fix | Analysis
August 29, 2017 at 6:30 AM
This post, originally published in January 2016, has been updated with President Trump's trip to Texas
Think of them as leadership pop quizzes.
That's how Washington University professor Andrew Reeves, who studies the politics of storm management, describes big storms and their impacts on politicians' careers.
“They don't campaign on these things, but they're faced with them,” Reeves said, “and they have to respond and drop what they're doing and deal with it.”
The problem for politicians is that when things go wrong with the weather, voters instinctively blame the incumbent, Reeves's research has found.
Which means President Trump, who will visit a flooded Texas on Tuesday and possibly more of Texas and Louisiana later in the week, has to be careful. Already, he's casually — and somewhat jarringly — mixing politics with his hurricane response on Twitter. Coming across as insincere or unfocused in the middle of a natural disaster can sink the rest of a politicians' ambition. Just ask some of these notable politicians, whose careers were forever changed by storms.
1. The New York mayor who got booed
The politician: New York Mayor John Lindsay (R)
The storm: “Lindsay's Storm,” 1969
The politician with a historic storm named after him — and not for a good reason — tops our list of notable political fallouts from a storm.
In February 1969, a nor'easter headed for the East Coast intensified into a historic snowstorm as it settled over New York, dumping some 20 inches on a city that was, by all accounts, woefully unprepared for it. Thousands of travelers were stranded. Roads in Queens in particular were unpassable. An estimated 42 people died. Everything from mail service to trash collection and schools was halted for about a week, as it later became apparent much of the city's snow-removal equipment didn't work — a telling example, some thought, of greater incompetence in city government.
The political aftermath: Residents booed Lindsay as his limo slipped and slid on untreated roads while touring the hardest-hit boroughs. Lindsay lost the Republican primary for his reelection the next year, although he managed to win in the general election as a third-party candidate. He also ran a brief 1972 campaign for president.
2. The reason we call these things a politician's 'Katrina'
The politician: President George W. Bush (R)
The storm: Hurricane Katrina, 2005
Hurricane Katrina ranks among the deadliest and costliest storms in U.S. history. In the middle of that year's Atlantic hurricane season, a Category 5 hurricane spiraled up the Gulf of Mexico, smashing through levies that protected New Orleans, flooding 80 percent of the city and killing an estimated 1,800 people mostly in Louisiana and Mississippi. The clean-up cost more than $1 billion.
The political aftermath: “Katrinagate” was a runner-up for linguists' 2005 word of the year because of mismanagement and slow responses at nearly every level of government, particularly to the flooding in New Orleans.
The post-storm finger-pointing went all the way to the top. A congressional investigation later found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross did not have systems “sophisticated” enough to deal with the disaster. The head of FEMA resigned. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) came under particular scrutiny.
Making matters worse for Bush, the hurricane hit while he was on vacation, and though he cut it short, the iconic image of him flying over the damaged area, looking out the window in dismay, became a symbol of government helplessness and detachment.
At one of his last news conferences in office, Bush said the handling of the storm was one of his presidency's greatest regrets. More than a decade later, politicians use "Katrina" to describe a crisis of the greatest magnitude facing their administration -- Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said it in reference to the Flint water crisis in January 2016.
3. The Chicago mayor who lost his job
The politician: Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic (D)
The storm: The 1979 Chicago blizzard
Bilandic's name will forever be tied to the Chicago Blizzard of '79, because it's one of the reasons he lost his job.
The historic snowstorm — at the time the second-worst in a city used to dealing with snow — effectively shut down Chicago, from O'Hare International Airport to the city's “L” train system, to overcrowded buses dodging snowbanks on thinned streets.
The political aftermath: It was a classic case of snowplows doing too little, too late and transportation being stymied because of it. Bilandic further inflamed tensions among frustrated residents when he ordered the elevated trains to bypass some stops, which were mostly in African American communities.
In a primary a month later, while the storm response was still heavy on residents' minds, Bilandic narrowly lost to a challenger, Jane Byrne, who went on to become Chicago's first female mayor.
4. The D.C. mayor who went to the Super Bowl
The storms: The D.C. blizzards of 1987
After celebrating winning his third term as mayor, Barry headed to California for Super Bowl XXI. The problem: D.C. was getting pummeled with two storms in a row, for a total of more than two feet. But Barry decided to stay for the Super Bowl, earning him intense criticism.
“There were these terrible optics,” Reeves said.
The political aftermath: Washington City Paper reported Barry stayed a few days afterward as well, playing tennis and getting a manicure. News of his vacation was amplified when the mayor collapsed in California and was taken to a hospital.
Barry is top of mind when it comes to politicians' snowstorm failures, but his public problems with drugs and alcohol probably overshadowed his Super Bowl slip-up.
5. The governor who became a national name
The politician: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R)
The storm: Hurricane Sandy, 2012
Now on to a few politicians whose handling of storms was praised. At the top of that list is Christie, even though he is no stranger to storm-response criticism. In 2010, he and his family were slammed for being on vacation in Disney World when two feet of snow fell on New Jersey — and his lieutenant governor (a new office created that year) was on vacation in Mexico.
In 2012, when it became clear the largest hurricane on record was heading straight for the tri-state area, Christie did his best to appear on top of things: He ordered evacuations. He made media appearances frequently. He toured the damage — most notably throwing politics aside and walking alongside damaged homes and businesses with President Barack Obama just days before the presidential election.
The political aftermath: Sandy elevated Christie's national image and helped define him as a no-nonsense problem-solver. In one poll, Christie's approval rating jumped nearly 20 points after the storm to 77 percent, and presidential buzz surrounding Christie increased. He eventually jumped into the 2016 presidential race, though he dropped out after a disappointing showing in the New Hampshire primary.
6. and 7. The cautious Massachusetts governors
The politicians: Former Massachusetts governors Michael Dukakis (D) and Deval Patrick (D)
The storms: The blizzards of 1978 and 2013
In a region used to nasty storms, the blizzard of 1978 and 2013's Winter Storm Nemo (which your Fix author lived through) top the record charts; they each dumped as much as four feet of snow on the New England region.
Thanks in part to shoddy weather forecasting, the magnitude of the blizzard of 1978 caught political leaders off guard. Tractor trailers jack-knifed on highways, thousands were stranded on the roads and in hockey stadiums, and Dukakis instituted a rare travel ban while appearing constantly on TV in a ratty gray sweater updating residents on his response.
Thirty-five years later, as Nemo's forecast strengthened to '78 levels, Patrick became the next governor to ban travel on public roads. But this time he did it before the storm, and he made penalties for breaking it steep — up to a year in jail and/or a $500 fine.
The political aftermath: Like Christie in New Jersey, Dukakis's constant presence and communication in the media during the storm was the textbook example of an involved and concerned leader. But it was a damaging storm nonetheless, and Dukakis told the Boston Globe before 2013's storm that he wished he had been able to institute the travel ban sooner.
That's likely because it worked the next time around. The 2013 storm decimated New England, but there were just two fatalities (related to carbon monoxide poisoning) and no reported jack-knifed trailers blocking highways. Patrick decided not to run for reelection in 2014, but he did briefly receive some presidential buzz.