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In Emergencies, Politicians Are Expected To Master Disaster

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (center) speaks to members of the media Saturday, alongside Sens. Mark Udall (left) and Michael Bennet, after touring flood-damaged areas by army helicopter.
Brennan Linsley
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (center) speaks to members of the media Saturday, alongside Sens. Mark Udall (left) and Michael Bennet, after touring flood-damaged areas by army helicopter.

On Saturday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was surveying scenes of destruction caused by massive flooding in the Boulder area. He found a dramatic way to help.

His helicopter stopped to pick up two groups of people who had been stranded by the storms.

The Democrat was quick to applaud GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, who was riding with him, for spotting the residents, as well as his pilot for having the skill to make pinpoint landings.

But Hickenlooper was still the one who got the credit in the headlines.

It's always this way with disasters. People don't expect governors to personally lead rescue missions, but they do expect them to take charge and rise rhetorically to the occasion.

"It's sort of like a leadership pop quiz," says Andrew Reeves, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied disaster relief politics.

When political executives — governors, mayors, presidents — rise to the occasion, they're heroes. If they don't, it can imperil both their re-election chances and their broader agenda.

Christie Comes Through

In 2010, Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was lambasted for staying at Disney World for a family holiday trip after the state had been hit by a massive snowstorm.

That's all forgotten now. Christie has won plaudits not only for his response to Superstorm Sandy last year, but for a boardwalk fire last week.

To deal with the latter, he canceled another Florida trip scheduled to celebrate his wife's 50th birthday. On Tuesday, the Newark Star-Ledger called him the "master of disaster," saying he "thrived amid chaos."

"One of the things Christie has been masterful at is having it appear that everything is being done by him," says John Weingart, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "He pulls it off and seems to be knowledgeable and in charge."

Governors TCB

People know that politicians aren't responsible for fires and floods, Reeves says, but when disaster strikes there's a natural tendency to punish the incumbent for things going wrong.

Governors can erase those bad feelings through their performance — offering words of comfort and resilience, directing personnel and equipment where they're most needed, securing federal funds.

Hickenlooper has been doing all these things in Colorado, saying that while roads and bridges may be broken, "our spirits aren't broken," and insisting that $5 million in federal funds is just a down payment.

A stalwart response can burnish a politician's image for the rest of his tenure. That certainly was the case in Florida, where former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush's hurricane preparation and response efforts enhanced his image and popularity. And that has been true for Christie, who has not shied from using imagery of Sandy's aftermath in his re-election campaign this fall.

His Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, in fact, complains that the state's recovery ad campaign — "Stronger Than the Storm" — has provided an unfair boost to Christie's re-election effort.

Some Have Blown It

Most governors didn't run for office thinking about how they would handle a natural disaster. They may have been more concerned about education or tax cuts or their own career advancement.

Once in office, it's easy to forget about the possibility of an emergency when day-to-day burdens are so time-consuming. But they have to be ready to step up to the challenges presented by a crisis, or forever be seen as having missed the moment.

"I've thought long and hard about Katrina — you know, could I have done something differently," George W. Bush said during his last press conference as president, referring to his administration's much-criticized hurricane response in New Orleans in 2005.

A number of mayors have been bedeviled politically when their cities were snarled by snowstorms. During his congressional re-election campaign last fall, Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island was still being criticized by his opponent for his handling of a snowstorm as mayor of Providence five years earlier.

Other mayors have lost their re-election campaigns largely due to their handling of snowstorms, perhaps still most famously Michael Bilandic of Chicago, back in 1979.

"Bilandic was the ultimate example of a very fine man, a very bright man, who was overwhelmed by the job and got hit by the snow and was unprepared," says Paul Green, a longtime observer of Chicago politics at Roosevelt University. "When someone gets to executive office, you've got to step up, and you can't hide."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.