Hurricane Isaac's achingly slow trek across south Louisiana left a devastating trail of damage for a Category 1 storm. Many chose to ride it out, believing the storm's "minimal" winds would inflict minimal damage. They were wrong.
It's a tough call when a storm approaches: Stay put and ride it out, or batten down early and evacuate? Katrina made that decision easy for many, as does any storm that generates winds in excess of 110 mph and pushes a massive storm surge across the marsh.
The decision is seldom that easy, however. Sometimes, as with Hurricane Gustav, New Orleans winds up being one of the safest places to be. (My family evacuated into Gustav, initially thinking we were getting out of its way.)
The stay-or-go conundrum is even more vexing for first responders and public officials. Their jobs require them to stay, but what about their families? It can't be easy to tell a spouse and children to leave while you stay. At a minimum, the kids will miss one of their parents.
No doubt these thoughts turned over in the mind of New Orleans City Council President Stacy Head before her decision to leave town on Aug. 29, shortly after Hurricane Isaac passed through the city. She joined her family at her husband's vacation home in the resort community of Watercolor, on Florida's fabled Emerald Coast. Head returned two days later, on Aug. 31.
When questioned by WWL-TV about her decision to leave town during the crisis — which continued for several days after the storm had passed — Head defended her choice. "There was nothing I could have been doing any differently in New Orleans, and I had the lagniappe of being able to get that stuff done while I did the right thing for my family," she told the station.
She showed WWL's David Hammer a set of texts and phone messages that she answered while in Florida as proof that she was doing her job and handling constituent problems. "I suppose in hindsight everyone could say, 'Oh, you should have done it differently,'" Head told WWL. "I did it differently in Gustav. ... I sent my husband with my kids to Alexandria."
Head's many supporters probably won't think twice about all this, but her decision could haunt her in future elections. UNO political science professor Ed Chervenak told Hammer that Head "has an obligation to her family to make sure they're OK, but she also has an obligation to her constituents."
Head's well-documented tiffs with Mayor Mitch Landrieu could make this look even worse. She took off for Florida shortly after the mayor's staff turned her away from an emergency planning meeting on Aug. 26 at City Hall. At a news conference a day or so later, Head snipped at Landrieu when he asked if Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson had arrived, presumably to invite her to the podium. "No, I'm the president. Don't forget!" Head said, then took a position right behind Landrieu.
Family considerations notwithstanding, leaving for Florida while much of the city sweltered without power — and after the run-ins with Landrieu — could easily be seen as a petulant reaction to a snub.
Citizens want and need to see their leaders when times are tough. Texting them and returning emails from afar just isn't the same, especially if a public official is comfy-cozy while citizens are suffering. Think of it this way: Would it have made a difference if Ray Nagin had texted and emailed folks from Jamaica in November 2005, while first responders were still finding bodies in New Orleans and many folks were still struggling to get to their homes?
I don't think so.