As one of the almost million volunteers who went to help after Hurricane Katrina (about one out of every 230 adults in the United States) I have seen the devastation and recovery first hand. At first it seemed totally unbelievable, as if the country had moved from first world status to third world status in twenty-four hours. Basics such as clean water and soap, luxuries in places like poverty ridden Sudan were not available. People were stuck in the Superdome without a way out. This, I thought could not be America.
What we learned from Hurricane Katrina is that good leaders become great leaders and others are shown to be empty suits. It also became clear that government has a job to do but only local communities can implement those tasks. Locals know who needs what and how to cut through the bureaucracy. They also can hinder response (such as zoning out housing solutions) but in general it is the best line of action and defense.
I have written about Gov. Haley Barbour several times but I really can’t write enough about what he did after the storm. I knew Barbour from his days as RNC Chair and to say that our politics are different would be an understatement. However, he ran the storm response like FDR ran the recovery from the Great Depression. Mrs. Barbour went out all over the state without saying a word that she was the governor’s wife and reported who needed what every night. Gov. Barbour responded by making sure local needs were being being met.
There were no political calculations on his part, it was just helping as needed. He has moved around the Gulf Coast as if he was just the good neighbor from across the street. I’ve been around politicians for 19 years as a reporter and Barbour is a master of being totally present to his citizens. It is a rare gift.