Pass or Fail?

08.28.11

Irene Political Report Card

The hurricane fizzled out, but politicians were careful to appear to be on top of a disaster. David A. Graham grades the pols, from Mayor Bloomberg to Chris Christie, Andrew Cuomo, and Obama.

Remember when politicians up and down the Eastern Seaboard were whipping citizens into a frenzy of panic and last-minute purchases before big, bad Irene hit? With the hurricane—well, not even a hurricane anymore, since it was downgraded to a tropical storm Sunday morning—done and gone, there’s some damage: around a dozen people were killed, countless trees fell, and many people lost their homes.

So the fuss turned out to be rather overblown. What does that mean for the politicos who issued those dire warnings Friday? It’s often hard to assign blame or credit directly, since much of the impact is a matter of luck or the effectiveness of utility companies—but that won’t stop us from grading some of the leading figures.

North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue

On Friday, Politico veered close to self-parody by asking how the still-awaited Irene would affect the first-term Democrat’s election chances, which look bleak. So far, she seems to have weathered Irene all right. The Tar Heel State got pummeled with nearly the full force of the storm and experienced more deaths than any other state so far. But power is already back for many of the approximately 500,000 North Carolinians who had lost it, and Perdue has arrived in Trenton, one of the harder-hit areas, to survey the damage and direct clean-up efforts.

Grade: B-

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg

The belle of the panic ball on Friday was Bloomberg (well, aside from cable news). And who could blame hizzoner? He desperately needed a better performance in Irene than he delivered during a late-December blizzard. During that storm, the city’s response was lumbering and ineffective, and Bloomberg was forced to take personal responsibility. So on Friday, he issued mandatory evacuation orders for nearly 400,000 New Yorkers, insisted that residents stock up on essentials, and announced that the subways would close at noon on Saturday. It set off a flurry of activity, although in classic fashion some jaded New Yorkers refused to evacuate. What happened? Well, not much. Parts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn saw minor flooding, and trees are down all over the city. Despite fears that ConEd, the power company, would preemptively cut electricity, the lights stayed on. Bloomberg seems to be on the defensive, insisting on Sunday that the measures his administration took were prudent and wise. Overall, however, initial reviews are mixed but leaning toward positive. It looks like Bloomberg may have overreacted—but better safe than sorry, and this was a vast improvement over past performance. The city also deserves plaudits for moving quickly to rescue some 60 people trapped on Staten Island. But watch for New Yorkers’ patience to wear thin Monday: the subways may not be up and running until well into the day, which could paralyze the city and bring out the Big Apple’s testiness. In the meantime, many New Yorkers seemed to have decided to discard Bloomberg’s counsel altogether on Sunday—despite admonitions to stay inside, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was hopping.

Grade: B-

New  Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Like Bloomberg, Christie had something to prove: when the December 2010 snowstorm hit, not only did his state fumble the response, but the governor was in Florida, cavorting at Disney World. This time he gave the storm his all, with trademark panache—telling Jerseyans to “get the hell off the beach!” Given the serious damage across the Garden State, his warnings seem to have been on the mark—although New York magazine couldn’t resist tweaking him for tweeting about his own media appearances while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was tweeting actual, useful hurricane info.

Grade: A-

Cuomo did a bit of citizen journalism, taking surprisingly good photos of flooding upstate.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell

The Old Dominion, too, was hard-hit by the storm, with four fatalities and the second-largest number of power outages in state history. But McDonnell, a first-term Republican, probably can rest easy: the reaction of many residents on the coast seems to be a shrug of relief. McDonnell went on Meet the Press Sunday morning and looks good now—but could be in trouble if the power isn’t back on for most Virginians within a couple of days.

Grade: A

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley

The Democrat had ordered some evacuations, including in the resort town of Ocean City. But although there are some power outages, Maryland looks to be sitting pretty. Even in Ocean City, where the storm produced dramatic images, the iconic boardwalk escaped serious damage and residents have returned. Given earlier predictions that Irene might head straight up the Chesapeake Bay, O’Malley lucked out.

Grade: A

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate

The reputation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has never recovered from Hurricane Katrina, so Irene is a big test. So far, the agency seems to be doing a decent job. Across the country, FEMA has teams on the ground and is in contact with state officials, and administrator Craig Fugate made the rounds of Sunday shows to make sure his message was getting out. Maryland Governor O’Malley praised the agency for a fast response during a Meet the Press appearance on Sunday. But with millions of Americans still without power at best or homeless at worst, it’s too early to give Fugate a grade. Meanwhile, funding for whatever FEMA does is likely to become a partisan football.

Grade: Incomplete

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

In typical fashion, the Democrat has taken a lower-key approach than Christie. But he’s been active in responding to the storm and dispensing useful advice on Twitter—even doing a bit of citizen journalism of his own by taking surprisingly good photos of flooding upstate. Most of the media attention so far may have been on Bloomberg’s turf in New York City, but much of the damage is outside the city, in Westchester County and Long Island. That means Cuomo will have his work cut out for him over the next few days.

Grade: A

President Barack Obama

Forget the actual actions; the biggest danger for any president during an emergency is simply appearing to be detached—just ask George W. Bush about Katrina. Obama declared states of emergency in several states even before landfall, a move that ensured that they’d have access to federal cash for clean-up and rescue efforts. Since Irene hit, he’s been keeping tabs on FEMA’s work. And his decision to leave vacation on Martha’s Vineyard early and return to Washington may not make much difference in government response, but it’s good optics.

Grade: A