It’s an unfortunate reality, but disaster response and recovery require an awfully large amount of political maneuvering, a situation that becomes even trickier in a presidential election season.
Louisiana’s political leaders have been walking that tightrope since Hurricane Isaac swamped thousands of homes in floodwaters, forced evacuations from rooftops and exposed new vulnerabilities in the state’s storm protection systems.
The most difficult maneuvering falls on Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who needs help from the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama even as he wants to oust him from office. But it’s also been thorny for other state leaders.
Both Obama and Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney dropped into Louisiana to view the damage personally, a lesson clearly learned after former President George W. Bush’s much-ridiculed fly-by of Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophe.
Jindal insisted he was staying focused on Isaac’s aftermath during both men’s visits.
“We’re not talking politics,’’ he said. “That’s not the right time to do that. We’re solely focused on the hurricane and the response.”
But it was clear the visits were tinged with political wrangling and concerns about image and messages.
Jindal, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter were among those elected officials who toured storm damage with Obama. Landrieu skipped the Romney visit, even though the presidential candidate could be needed for disaster aid if he wins the November election.
Vitter highlighted Romney’s trip with photos on his Facebook page. Photos of his time with Obama weren’t posted, however.
Landrieu noted Obama’s trip on her Facebook page. But recognizing that Obama isn’t popular with a large portion of Louisiana voters, she also made sure to feature a letter she gave to the president that pushed for a quick federal response and more money for hurricane protection infrastructure.
Even though Louisiana’s expected to strongly support Romney for his White House bid, Landrieu’s also been quick to point out that Romney’s running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, earlier this year unsuccessfully tried to eliminate $10 billion a year in disaster spending. Ryan proposed that when emergencies arise, Congress pay for the disaster costs by cutting from elsewhere in the budget.
That’s probably a point that Republican politicians in Louisiana – a state repeatedly slammed by disasters in the last decade, from hurricanes to a massive oil spill – won’t be showcasing as they support the Romney/Ryan presidential ticket.
While on his hurricane damage visit, Romney was sensitive to the tea party push to downsize federal spending. He didn’t focus on how the federal government could help areas rebuild and recover. Instead, he talked of the need for charitable donations to aid relief efforts and the attention he could bring to drumming up such support for the hard-hit parishes.
Meanwhile, Jindal’s left to grapple with the contradiction of being a governor with his hand repeatedly out to the federal government for disaster aid even after he’s regularly railed against federal spending levels and the size of the national debt.
The Republican governor is asking FEMA to pick up the full cost of state and local government agencies’ expenses for storm preparation and response, instead of the usual 75 percent share (or 90 percent share if the disaster reaches certain benchmarks). He’s also sought several types of federal aid grants and disaster food stamps.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, for him not to ask for such help with thousands of homes damaged in his state and people struggling to rebuild. But the federal spending requests are unlikely to be a prominent feature in speeches to national GOP groups.
What remains to be seen is how Jindal and other state elected officials will respond if any of the aid requests are denied or if recovery efforts hit roadblocks.
Louisiana learned hard lessons about politics after hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the state seven years ago, and the residents stripping their homes of waterlogged sofas and rotting carpet after Isaac likely would prefer to avoid the political gamesmanship of that recovery.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.