Gustav could be perfect political spin storm

Tropical Storm Gustav
In this satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Tropical Storm Gustav churns through the Caribbean at 16:15 GMT August 28, 2008.
Photo by NOAA via Getty Images

Katrina was a natural disaster that turned into a political one for the Bush administration. Gustav, now on course for the Gulf Coast almost three years to the day since that hurricane struck, could offer the chance for redemption or point-scoring in the presidential campaign.

Fumble the response again and the Democrats will pounce, especially given that Gustav could make landfall in the midst of the Republican National Convention, which opens Monday in St. Paul, Minn.

Do well by the public and Republicans can crow.

And if the storm never comes ashore? Wait until next time.

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Since Katrina, which struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, the public pays closer attention to how its government copes with hurricanes.

"If it does work out well, it will probably be a small plus for us," said New York Rep. Peter King, top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees federal disaster response operations. "Obviously, if it doesn't work out well, then the Republicans are going to have a problem."

Forecasters predicted Gustav would be just south of the Louisiana coast Monday night, making landfall Tuesday. Another tropical storm also was developing off the Atlantic.

Troy Gibson, political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, said Republicans could use it to their advantage if Gustav is as destructive as Katrina because they will have center stage at the convention to champion their commitment to relief efforts and getting it right.

"But," King warned, "it's more of a problem if you're the guy living in the eye of the storm."

The life-and-death implications of Gustav are clear, regardless of political leanings.

"Our concern is for the lives in the storm's potential path," said Amber Wilkerson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Many lessons have been learned since Katrina, when about 1,600 people were killed and 1 million others were displaced from their homes.

"What you're going to see is the product of three years of planning, training and exercising at all levels of government, starting with the local and the state level and leading up to the federal level. So we're clearly better prepared," the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff said Friday on ABC's "Good Morning America." He was interviewed from New Orleans where he was coordinating storm preparation efforts.

The Bush administration is in regular contact with Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Jindal has said he will skip the convention because of the storm. Nagin, widely criticized in 2005 for not evacuating his city before Katrina, left the Democratic National Convention early to return home. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has held up his plans to go to Minnesota.

The homeland security secretary and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief were in Louisiana on Thursday. New Orleans and Louisiana officials were poised to evacuate residents; equipment has been set in position; safe shelters were readied; cots, blankets and hygiene kits were en route to the region.

"This is not about politics. It's about people and doing what's right," said James Lee Witt, a former FEMA administrator who is advising Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on homeland security and disasters. Witt is confident the agency will do better this time.

But Witt's previous boss, former President Clinton, rallied Democrats around the administration's Katrina failures when he spoke Wednesday at the convention.

"What about Katrina and cronyism?" Clinton said, followed by a chorus of "boos" from the crowd. "My fellow Democrats, America can do better than that."

Clinton was referring to Bush appointee Michael Brown, a former official with the International Arabian Horse Association who led FEMA during Katrina. Brown was forced to resign shortly after the storm as the extent of the agency's failings became clear.

Brown - best remembered for Bush's comment, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!" - is prepared for a slew of "Brownie" jokes in the coming days as Katrina and hurricane response make their way back into the news.

But Brown admonishes, "You don't play politics with disasters."

He said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday that both parties will try to use the brewing storm to their advantage.

In light of that, Brown offers this advice to Obama and GOP candidate John McCain: "Come on, guys, be statesmen and use this as an opportunity to educate the public about how important it is to fully fund firefighters, to educate the public and to be prepared."

He added, "Listen to the guy that's been on the mountaintop and listen to the guy that's been down into the valley of, you know, where nothing worked. And listen to what I have to say."

And Brown offers this advice to the administration: "Don't let the media control the message."


Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)