This post was updated at 3:42 EST
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is already complaining that the Obama administration is being stingy with federal resources before Hurricane Isaac has even made landfall.
But the usual FEMA pre-disaster protocol has been activated. The Obama administration has approved Jindal’s request for a disaster declaration. The administration’s actions thus far have earned plaudits from the state’s two senators — including Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). And moreover, the steps the administration has taken are broadly similar to the Bush administration’s initial response to Hurricane Gustav in 2008, which Jindal did not publicly criticize.
Jindal’s chief complaint is that the Obama administration has not provided for the federal government to reimburse Louisiana for expenditures the state is making in preparation for the storm.
Asked today to respond to Jindal’s push for further assistance, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate explained, “primary responsibility for evacuations really [falls to] state and local governments and when it’s extraordinary the federal government can support that with financial assistance. What the President said yesterday was if you have a request for specific federal assistance, we’re ready to provide that life safety issues. We’re not going to hold anything up. But we’ll look at the impacts and determine, does this really exceed the state’s capability that require federal tax dollars to support that response and particularly if they start having damages. So, early on the request was direct federal assistance. If the financial impacts are greater than the state of Louisiana can manage, we assess that and we’ll make recommendations again looking at what the governor has requested.”
That’s the same approach the Bush administration took when Gustav was bearing down on Louisiana in 2008.
According to the Louisiana Times-Picayune, “Though Jindal called on the federal government to shoulder the full cost of the federal, state and local efforts, he did not publicly make the same criticisms when former President George W. Bush issued a similar declaration that included a cost ceiling as Hurricane Gustav approached the state…though as the storm was trailing off, the state and the Bush administration fought over exactly who would pay for what portion of the federal response.”
Barry Scanlon, President of the crisis management firm Witt Associates, says rows like the one over Isaac are common in the grey area between mild and severe storms. Governors are expected to push the federal government for as much assistance as possible, while presidential administrations are right to be circumspect, and not simply hand their purse strings over to the states. But for a storm like Isaac, it may have made sense for the Obama administration to be more generous.
“I think normally you can see FEMA’s position that we can’t do a pre-landfall declaration for every cat[egory] one storm that comes to shore,” Scanlon said. “But you do have an instance where…the National Weather Service and the outside meteorological people are saying this looks to be a very wet storm and you’re talking about the low-lying areas of Louisiana that bring some acute problems of evacuation and protecting public health and human safety. If you’re going to use that discretion, this would’ve been one of those opportunities. But FEMA’s well within their right not to and the governor’s certainly within his right to ask for it.”
Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin did not directly address TPM’s request for further comment on the appropriateness of the administration’s approach. But he told the Times-Picayune that Jindal learned from his experience in 2008 to press harder.
“We’ve learned from past experience that you have to push the federal bureaucracy,” he said. “We make no apologies for fighting for the people of Louisiana regardless of who is president.”
By contrast, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, along with Republican Sen. David Vitter and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, have all praised FEMA’s efforts to date.
Vitter was particularly effusive. “I have not talked with FEMA, but my staff has, and they have been a lot more proactively engaged ahead of the event than ever before,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.