The governor's Katrina moment

Cleaning up a disaster like this month's storm could get messy for Chris Gregoire in a re-election year.
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Cleaning up a disaster like this month's storm could get messy for Chris Gregoire in a re-election year.

Terrible floods, over-topped levees, billions of dollars in damages: say cheese, Gov. Chris Gregoire, it's time for your disaster close-up.

The early December storm that devastated parts of Western Washington and saw massive flooding in Lewis County comes at a critical moment for Gregoire as she heads into her re-election campaign. So far, she's doing the right stuff: getting out in the field, taking chopper rides, pestering the president for more disaster aid quicker, and demonstrating a hands-on approach to what she acknowledges will be on ongoing recovery effort – a matter of months, even years, not weeks. Gregoire has promised that she--and state government – are in for "the long haul." But that haul could be fraught. The governor is right to grab hold of the situation, but by grabbing hold she now owns it. And a disaster aftermath is rarely pretty.

As was demonstrated with Bush's blase (not to mention incompetent) response to hurricane Katrina in 2005, the failure to seize the moment can be politically hazardous. Gregoire seems to be firing on all cylinders and is throwing herself and her cabinet at disaster relief and recovery efforts. One would expect no less of a skilled political insider who knows how to make Olympia's bureaucracy work and who is backed by a solid team with a powerful sorority of pork-barrelers in Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. This is a time when even Republicans will be grateful for federal muscle, congressional earmarks, and special budget requests. Her Republican challenger, Dino Rossi, seems quiet on the subject of the disaster. Perhaps that's because a "governor for the government" (as Rossi has called Gregoire) is exactly what the state needs in these situations. Someone who can pull the levers and fix the levees.

But the clean-up and recovery gets harder. One thing I learned during the short time I was a part-time disaster assistance worker for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2001-02 is that everyone cheers for the calvary at first, but a few months out, when disaster victims have had their fill of loss and red tape, that warm glow can turn to resentment. It dawns of people that neither FEMA nor their insurance companies will make them whole again. FEMA's job, of course, isn't to make people whole – imagine the taxes to sustain a federal safety net that large – but many who are experiencing devastating losses don't want to hear that. They want relief. On top of that, there are the inevitable cases of fraud or incompetence in the clean-up that can make headlines. Look for these problems to pop up in early in 2008, just as the re-election campaign heats up.

Even more complicated is fixing some of the systemic problems that may have caused or aggravated the disaster in the first place. Already it's clear that development patterns, logging practices, and greed played a role in the Lewis County flooding. Salvage loggers and developers will demand a set of policies that may run against the long-term interests of a community yearning for normalcy fast. Environmentalists may object to quick recovery practices (like habitat-harming dredging). And taxpayers may wonder about the fiscal wisdom of allowing sprawl on flood plains in the first place, let alone footing the bill for enabling it in the future. Businesses will go belly-up, and the displaced and unemployed will become voices of discontent. The land may be soggy, but it's still political turf.

There's not much to pick at yet. Gregoire was feisty in demanding that the feds step up the level of disaster aid, but they were actually moving pretty quickly. To get a federal disaster declaration, a state needs to provide evidence that local resources are overwhelmed, and FEMA needs to verify that. A massive earthquake, like Nisqually in 2000, gets quick action because the level of damage will obviously meet the benchmarks that will satisfy the provisions of the Stafford Act, the federal law that governs disaster assistance. Plus, big-time disasters have what's called a high "CNN factor," meaning the TV images are so dramatic that they get the government moving if for no other reason than to cover its rear. But floods are a dime a dozen. A FEMA worker once told me that some places are underwater so often that they are referred to as simply another "drowned town." States can often handle flood, mud, and wind damage, so FEMA inspectors need to quantify the damage and determine whether or not the damage is really bad enough to warrant federal help.

Getting disaster declarations is partly political – congressional clout can speed up the process – but it also depends on where you live. Washington has powerful elected officials, and we're prone to everything from quakes, eruptions, and tsunamis to floods, wildfires, windstorms, snow and ice storms, droughts, and mudslides. We even had a disaster declared because of the effects of El Nino in 1994. With climate shifts and rapid growth, expect more misery in the future. A plague of locusts, perhaps.

That Washington is disaster-prone is reflected in FEMA's numbers. We rank 13th in the nation (how unlucky is that?) in the number of federal disasters declared – right between Mississippi and Arkansas. We've had more declared disasters than other Northwest state – even volcanic Alaska (29th), storm-battered Oregon (31st), and Idaho (40th). The least-disaster-prone states in the West are Utah and Wyoming. Maybe Dick Cheney and the Mormons know something we don't.

The surefire political response to disasters is usually to point fingers. When last year's flooding in Seattle drowned a woman in the Madison Valley neighborhood, the city blamed a "100-year" storm. In Chehalis, they're not accepting blame for clear-cutting hillsides and building malls on flood plains; the disaster was caused by a "freak" storm. In California earlier this year, strongman Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used the perennial excuse and blamed wildfires not on suburban sprawl in a tinderbox landscape but on "the perfect storm" of drought and high winds. So if things get rough for Gregoire, she can always trot out the perennial scapegoat: Mother Nature. No one is expected to be the "governor" of her.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.