When Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast in late October, people along the Gulf Coast reacted with compassion and common sense. We sent money. We collected essentials and drove them up. Above all, we refused to compare Sandy's devastation with that of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. What would be the point? The sight of chewed-up coastlines, caved-in roofs and piled-up soggy carpet on curbs was all too familiar to us. We understand that misery is misery. Why politicize it?
It took politicians to do that.
Decrying what he saw as the government's slow response to Sandy victims, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., drew reckless comparisons between the two storms — and the federal government's response to each. "When we had that devastating [Hurricane] Katrina, we were there within days, taking care of Mississippi, Alabama and especially Louisiana," Reid said. "And the people of New Orleans, in that area, they were hurt, but nothing in comparison to what's happened to the people in New England."
Reid might want to review hundreds of hours of television news footage showing people in the streets after Katrina — both residents and reporters — begging for help for nearly a week after the federal levee failures. Truth is, the federal responses to both storms were disasters unto themselves.
Reaction to Reid's comments from Louisiana politicians was swift.
"I think it still shows that he's got an incredible ... ignorance of what happened down here [and] an incredible insensitivity to the victims of Hurricane Katrina," said U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie. "He really owes an apology to all of the people who took offense to it, and many, including myself, took tremendous offense to his statements."
"Harry Reid's comments are repugnant," said U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge. "More than 1,800 Louisianans were killed in Katrina, not to mention billions of dollars in damage and destruction. The New Orleans area still bears the scars. People in Louisiana have the deepest compassion for those impacted by Superstorm Sandy. We understand what they are going through and pray for their swift recovery, [but] we do not compare our tragedies."
"Storms have blown across our shores throughout history," Jefferson Parish President John Young said. "We do not dare try and compare one to another."
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, no stranger to controversy, said: "Sadly, Harry Reid has again revealed himself to be an idiot, this time gravely insulting Gulf Coast residents. Both Katrina and Sandy were horribly destructive storms that caused real human misery. And by most any measure, Katrina was our worst natural disaster in history." Vitter was right about Katrina, but he doesn't come off well as a public scold. As New York magazine noted acidly, "Vitter, on the other hand, is perfect and has never made a mistake ever."
The politician who really stepped in it was Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., who voted against a Congressional aid package for Sandy victims — even as it was revealed that he lobbied for federal funds for Mississippi after Katrina, when he was CFO of the Biloxi Housing Authority. Palazzo first explained that he voted against the Sandy package because he was concerned that there was no revenue-neutral spending cut attached to the bill (a concern he didn't have when it came to federal funds for Biloxi). When that didn't wash, Palazzo traipsed up to New York and New Jersey to "inspect" Sandy's damage — more than two months after the storm — and with a full media entourage in tow. He then declared, "Now is the time for the federal government to provide immediate relief to those affected by the storm. I am fully committed to providing the relief they so desperately need."
Palazzo wasn't the only one to reverse course clumsily in the face of criticism. After U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu showed only tepid public support for Reid, the Senate leader finally issued a grudging non-apology. Worse, in correcting himself, Reid couldn't resist trying to get in a dig against his political opponents: "In my recent comments criticizing House Republicans for threatening to betray Congress' tradition of providing aid to disaster victims in a timely fashion regardless of region," he said in a statement, "I simply misspoke."
Misspoke? That's putting it mildly.
New Orleanians didn't try to measure the Northeast's suffering after Sandy. Nor did we take the political measure of those who were hurt. We merely opened our hearts and did what we could to help. Too bad America's elected representatives couldn't find it within themselves to do the same.