Steel sheet pile pulled from the 17th Street Canal floodwall breach, New Orleans

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has put a renewed media and political focus on the significant government failures of Hurricane Katrina, including the collapsed, flawed floodwalls and levees that put most of New Orleans underwater. There’s also an HBO drama now featuring John Goodman’s impassioned, expletive-laden speeches on that man-made disaster. The New York Times Public Editor recently devoted part of a column to discussing the subject.

But a selective amnesia still dominates for some reason. Take a look at this blogosphere exchange between NRO’s Yuval Levin and MoJo’s Kevin Drum:

Levin says, essentially, Katrina was an act of God for which no government could have been prepared, and, under the circumstances, things weren’t so bad: (more…)

The juxtaposition of Hurricane Gustav and the Republican Convention has naturally set off lots of idle speculation about the political impact of the storm. It’s the perfect Drudge convergence: disaster and partisan politics. God is on the side of the Democrats! (former DNC chair Don Fowler) There is a God after all! (Michael Moore) It’s an opportunity for Republicans! (the Associated Press).

I am grateful the storm has given the Republican Party and the McCain campaign a chance to show a little restraint for a change. But obviously nobody can predict the political impact of a storm before it happens, because that depends on the real, physical impact. And that’s what we should be worried about. Lives and communities are literally at stake here.

One note, though: if a disaster has a political impact, it’s almost always negative. If things go well – if FEMA doesn’t screw up terribly, if people are rescued in a timely fashion – that’s good. Or great, considering the recent record. But historically, those situations have not been huge political pluses because that’s what is supposed to happen. It’s when things go wrong – when people’s expectations are not met – that you see political impacts. Very negative ones.

This is a paradox of disaster management that the Bush administration learned the hard way. Though it takes a lot of effort to put robust emergency management policies and institutions in place, the political upside is minimal. If the emergency plan works, you won’t get much credit after the storm, at least among the population at large. If things go south, though, the political downside can be huge. That’s why presidents (and governors, and mayors) neglect emergency management at their own peril.

So, it would be nice if everybody speculating about this would just shut up and let FEMA, the National Guard, the Coast Guard and other responders to their jobs. If they do them well (and New Orleans is still intact afterward) this will likely cause few ripples on the national political scene. Which I’m sure is perfectly OK with both McCain and Obama.

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