Disaster, Politics, and Perception

One of the weird things I learned in my years as a meteorologist is that whenever it's a wet May in Houston, there will be a tropical system in August and September.  I don't fully understand the mechanism for this.  I'm still trying to figure that out.  But, prior to 2016, in eight out of the ten wettest Mays in Houston's history, a tropical storm or hurricane made landfall along the Texas and Louisiana coast later that summer.  

So, this past May, when my parents called me to say there was massive flooding all around their neighborhood in southwest Houston, I said, "uh oh."  That means there will be a tropical system hitting somewhere between the Rio Grande and the Mouth of the Mississippi between August 1st and September 15th.  Again, I don't fully know why it happens, I just know that it does.  

It happened again this year.  On August 12, a storm moved in over Baton Rouge, Louisiana and stopped.  It dumped two feet of water in less than two  days.  This storm didn't get a name because it didn't spend enough time time out over the water to strengthen.  But, it had a closed low, and was drawing in tropical moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.  Had this been just 200 miles south, it would have been named.  Instead, it's being called the Louisiana Flood of 2016.  

There are a couple of other things that I've learned in my years in journalism that I know will happen.  I don't fully know why they will happen, I just know that they do.  

One, the press isn't as interested in things that happen in Baton Rouge as they are about things that happen in New Orleans.  The cities are separated by just 80 miles and Baton Rogue is the state capital.  But, New Orleans is sexier.  So, all things being equal, a flood in New Orleans is more important to the national media than a flood in Baton Rogue.  And, a flood in New Jersey is even more important than a flood in New Orleans.  

Two, a Democrat who is President gets the benefit of the doubt from our national media.  A Republican who is President does not.  Those are just facts.  

What we end up with here is a story of weather, journalism, history and politics colliding.  That's my wheelhouse, baby!  So, let's look at how the Louisiana Flood of 2016 compares to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.  We will look at the weather impacts, the political reactions and the way the media covered all three.

Let's start with Hurricane Katrina.  It hit New Orleans on August 28, 2005.  It caused destruction along the coast from west of New Orleans through Mississippi, Alabama and parts of the Florida Panhandle.  The biggest part of the disaster came because the levy along New Orleans failed, flooding around 80 percent of the city.  1,800 people died in that storm.  It took months for the flood waters to be pumped out of New Orleans partly because the entire city is below sea level.  

On August 31, less than three days after the storm hit, President Bush cut short his summer vacation in Crawford, Texas.  On the way back to Washington D.C. he had Air Force One fly low over the city so he could get an areal view of the damage.  You probably remember the picture of the President looking out the window.  

The next day he asked Democrat Louisiana Governor Blanco to let the federal government take over the evacuation of New Orleans.  She refused.  Bush was trying to use federal power to save lives more efficiently than the local resources could.  The governor thought that might allow the government to declare martial law.  Never mind that there was already widespread looting in the city and police were ordered to shoot looters on sight.  

On September 2nd, Bush toured the coast, visiting Alabama and Mississippi.  He stays away from New Orleans, the site of the flooding and highest death toll.  That night, NBC airs a concert to raise money for relief efforts in the gulf states.  Kanye West stands on stage and says, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."  While this is going on, the coast guard is still rescuing thousands of people from the floods off the rooftops of their homes.  

On September 5,the breach of the levy was finally sealed.  Bush speaks in New Orleans' Jackson Square on September 15, 18 days after the flooding began.  Less than a week later, Hurricane Rita struck near Beaumont, Texas and Lake Charles, Louisiana, flooding New Orleans yet again.  

So, here's the narrative that was pushed by the media.  It took Bush too long to visit the area.  When he did, he only flew in a plane and looked down from above.  That was insensitive and heartless.  They ignored efforts by the administration to improve the evacuation of the city.  Bush's visit to the Gulf states didn't really count because those places in Alabama and Mississippi weren't as important as New Orleans.  And, Bush is a racist.

The Louisiana Flood of 2016 has killed 13 people,  nowhere near the death toll from Katrina.  But, it has forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.  75 percent of all the homes in one parish have been destroyed.  Half a million people have been affected by this.  

The flooding began on September 12.  President Obama was on vacation at the time.  He took time off from his vacation to attend a political fundraiser dinner for Hillary Clinton and then returned to his vacation.  

One week after the flooding began, the White House said the President didn't have any plans to visit the flooded region anytime soon.  He didn't want to get in the way, but he was talking to Democrat Governor John Bel Edwards on the phone every day.  

That same day, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump canceled some of his campaign events and flew to Baton Rouge.  While he was there, he donated an 18 wheeler worth of supplies to the relief effort.  Trump's visit also finally turns the national media's attention to the disaster, the largest natural disaster in America since Sandy struck the East coast four years earlier.  Trump's visit causes a change of heart inside the Administration.  The President's spokesman announces President Obama will visit the area on August 23, 11 days after the flooding began.  

Hillary Clinton, the democrat candidate for president has no plans to visit Louisiana at all.  

On a side note, singer Taylor Swift donated a million dollars to flood relief and was one of the first celebrities to take any action.  You may remember that Swift was once swift boated by Kanye West when he interrupted her MTV acceptance speech by saying that Beyoncé should have won the award instead of her.  The same Kanye who accused Bush of being racist thought it was important to point out that the white girl shouldn't have won the music video award.  I have not been able to find any reporting on how much money Kanye has donated to help black people during this flood of 2016.

I mentioned this is the worst disaster since Sandy hit the East Coast back in 2012.  Back then, Barack Obama was running for reelection.  Funny, but it only took him two days to visit New Jersey with Republican Governor Chris Christie.  There was no concern then that his visit might get in the way.  He changed his schedule to make it happen.  But, that was New Jersey and he was running for reelection.  His visit helped push him over the top on his way to defeating Governor Mitt Romney in the presidential election 7 days later.

Yes, Sandy was a worse event than the flood of 2016.  But, Sandy's impact was felt over 16 states.  All of this flooding event has been felt in south Louisiana and one county of Mississippi.  I would argue that the impact on those specific areas is much greater than any single area suffered during Sandy.  

It only took Obama two days to visit New Jersey.  It's taken him two weeks before he even speaking about Louisiana, and then only after Donald Trump did it first.  Bush was racist for flying over the region to get an areal view of the disaster.  Why is Obama not racist for playing golf instead of even attempting a fly-by?  

One last point.  Leaders lead.  Through their words and their actions, they get others to change their behavior.  Donald Trump got the President of the United States to change his behavior.  That is the essence of true leadership.  That kind of leadership has been lacking in the White House for the past seven and a half years.