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A Political Wind 

Bolstered by the gusts of hurricanes past, Gustav is sending another surge of change across Louisiana's political landscape.

You can't reason with hurricane season. Windell Curole knows this all too well. Nonetheless, he questions Mother Nature. Can she be that brutal? Will the wind and rain destroy our communities? Curole, the levee director for both Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, where Hurricane Gustav made landfall last week, is accustomed to such ponderings.

But on this particular Sunday, just hours before Gustav's expected arrival, Curole is having a particularly difficult time reasoning with the weather. "It just doesn't make sense to me," he says while driving to a local hospital to ride out the storm. "I look all around me and everything is green. The water is beautiful. It's hard to imagine a huge wall of water is about to come and take it all away."

Fortunately, Gustav was no Katrina. The Great Media Caravan of 2008, which brought Louisiana a swell of producers and reporters prospecting for news, has already gone bust. While Katrina prompted The New York Times to reopen its New Orleans bureau and CNN to hire a Louisiana reporter, don't expect the media elite to bunker down in Cocodrie or Grand Isle for long. For them, the thrill was gone before the cleanup even started.

Still, this year's biggest storm (thus far, at least) will leave a lasting impression on Louisiana's political landscape, although much of its heft is spillover from the 2005 storm season. For instance, even before Katrina and Rita, Bayou State politicos feared decades of out-migration would cost Louisiana a congressional seat after the 2010 census. The sister storms of three years ago pushed out tens of thousands more and virtually guaranteed the loss of a seat. Then came Gustav.

How the latest storm might affect evacuees' decisions to return home is unknown, but it will do little to brighten the outlook for Louisiana's congressional districts. "Everything that's happening now is not only buttressing the notion that we will lose one congressional seat, but also the possibility that we could lose another one the next time," says Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport demographer and political analyst. "Are we setting ourselves up for a second loss following the 2020 census? That's where we are. Every hurricane hurts."

If you listen to the rumblings of Louisiana's political rumor mill, the lower Acadiana district of U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Napoleonville Democrat, could be sacrificed in order to expand adjoining districts. Melancon's Third Congressinoal District includes Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, which were decimated by Katrina, as well as Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, the prime targets of Gustav. Generally, an influential incumbent in the majority party would never be the "target" of redistricting efforts, but Melancon may not complain. He has already hinted that he may run against Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in 2010 — and the pressures of redistricting may push him even closer to that decision.

Of course, a lot of positioning and politicking goes into the redistricting process, from concerns about minority representation to complex population shifts. An alternative theory involves the consolidation of districts in north Louisiana, where out-migration figures have outpaced the national average.

As for more immediate impacts, the leading candidates in Louisiana's U.S. Senate race — incumbent Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and state Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican — pulled their ads from television for most of last week and diverted more money to radio, a wise decision considering the widespread power outages and the reach of talk radio during hurricanes. Congressional primaries, meanwhile, were put on hold until Oct. 4, forcing the hacks and flacks to come up with new game plans.

The lack of television — and the resulting lack of access to nonhurricane news — also kept Catholics from down the bayou from hearing much about the controversy surrounding the GOP's vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin (specifically, Palin's pregnant 17-year-old daughter). Gov. Bobby Jindal also took a hit from Gustav, at least as far as his national aspirations are concerned. One of the GOP's rising stars, Jindal was scheduled to speak at the convention during prime time last week. Instead, he skipped the convention to watch Gustav slam into his state.

Don't cry for Jindal, though. He likely will have another shot at convention stage time in the future. In fact, Jindal's life is peppered with fantastical second chances. He relishes telling the story of how his wife turned him down when he first asked her out. He also had to run for governor twice before voters embraced him. Jindal even got a second chance of sorts from Hurricane Gustav, a do-over that really belongs to the office of governor. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, fared poorly during her encounter with Katrina and Rita in 2005. Her response and performance are now the stuff of legend. Ironically, Blanco's missteps and the federal government's follies gave Jindal a reverse blueprint to follow last week.

And follow it he did. The governor was calm and collected during his daily briefings, promising citizens quick action and rattling figures and statistics off the top of his head. Gustav actually put Jindal, the policy wonk and Rhodes Scholar, in his element. His appearances, as usual, were tightly scripted, but more often than not the governor's true self peeked through: cautious, intelligent and thorough.

Jindal's approval ratings were high before Gustav made landfall and probably jumped even higher as a result of his performance during the storm. He wisely called for early evacuations, pulled down all the right federal resources and voiced an appropriate level of frustration for Louisiana's citizens after the storm. When discussing possible outcomes for Gustav, Jindal was direct. When explaining the recovery process, he spoke in microscopic detail. When Entergy officials argued that it might take three or more weeks to return power to residents, Jindal called it "unacceptable."

It was a far cry from the mess surrounding Blanco three years ago. Then again, she was the guinea pig in Louisiana's catastrophe-response lab, and her experience no doubt helped Jindal shine. State Sen. Butch Gautreaux, a Morgan City Democrat whose district took the brunt of Gustav, says Jindal went "over the top" sometimes to make sure the state was prepared, such as his decision to evacuate all of south Louisiana — but he had a great deal at stake politically. "I understand that [Jindal] was very critical of the way Kathleen Blanco handled the response to Hurricane Katrina and he wants to make sure things go off without a hitch," Gautreaux says.

While Jindal may benefit politically from the storm, Gustav should also bolster Louisiana's arguments for hurricane protection and coastal restoration projects. Among them is the proposed Morganza-to-the-Gulf levee system, designed to protect the Terrebonne-Lafourche coastline and communities like Houma and Thibodaux. Good-government groups have labeled its $888 million price tag as pork, and the White House has voiced concerns about the design.

State Rep. Gordon Dove, a Houma Republican, says Gustav could give the region enough political capital to not only finish Morganza but also direct resources to similar projects. Port Fourchon in lower Lafourche Parish, through which flows a whopping 18 percent of the entire nation's energy supply, could also become a bartering chip. "We stared down the bullet on flooding," Dove says. "Port Fourchon is going to take a while to come back up and hopefully that will get the nation's attention. We survived this hurricane, but only because it was coming from a certain direction and going a certain speed."

In the end, Gustav taught local governments that they have no one to count on but themselves. FEMA and the Red Cross had difficulty pre-positioning supplies, leaving parish leaders to fend for themselves during the first few days after the storm. "I think it has gotten to a point where we try not to rely on the state and federal governments too much," says Rep. Damon Baldone, a Houma Democrat. "People rely on themselves down here."

Dana St. Romain, a Red Cross volunteer from Port Allen, admitted last week that supplies were running "unusually low" just one day after the storm. Another Red Cross shelter 10 miles away in Plaquemine also felt the pinch early on, making a public plea for donations. "We're running out of everything," Romain said at the time, adding grimly that another 50 to 100 evacuees were expected at the shelters by day's end.

In the long run, such discomforts are temporary. The social, cultural and political aftermath of Gustav, however, could last for decades. It's another fact of life that Curole, the levee director for Terrebonne and Lafourche, knows all too well. You just have to accept and embrace the changes brought about by Mother Nature and try to prepare for the next storm. After all, there's no reasoning with hurricane season — or its unpredictable political aftermath. "There's nothing else you can do," Curole says. "You just try to keep on fighting."

click to enlarge Gov. Bobby Jindal and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, along with State and local Government officials, including Lieutenant Gov. Mitch Landrieu (left front) and U.S. Sen. David Vitter (back center), meet with the press at the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge to answer questions about Hurricane Gustav. - FEMA/JACINTA QUESADA
  • FEMA/Jacinta Quesada
  • Gov. Bobby Jindal and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, along with State and local Government officials, including Lieutenant Gov. Mitch Landrieu (left front) and U.S. Sen. David Vitter (back center), meet with the press at the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge to answer questions about Hurricane Gustav.
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