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Column: Reaction To Hurricane Gustav Proves Louisiana's Leadership Improvement

This story was written by Matt McEntire, The Daily Reveille

When I first saw the projected course of Hurricane Gustav, I was scared it was going to be a case of dj vu.

When Hurricane Katrina first hit Louisianas shores, I didnt have the typical responses. I was not afraid. I did not feel sorry for the people of New Orleans.

No, I was optimistic. I believed Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin would be to Louisiana what Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani were to New York in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Under their leadership, I believed we could disprove the prevalent stereotypes people have for our state. We are not backward and uneducated. We are not opportunistic. Our public servants from the governor to a police officer directing traffic are competent and hardworking.

I couldnt have been more wrong.

As a transplant to south Louisiana from Shreveport, one of the hardest things to get used to was hurricane season. It isnt that we dont get the TV coverage or pay attention its just by the time a storms outer bands are 250 miles inland, were left with just a heavy rainstorm. With my first two hurricane seasons largely uneventful, I never understood what all the fuss was about.

Hurricane Katrina changed that.

For the first few days, the accounts I heard were secondhand from people who had electricity. While all my friends who lived on campus still had power and were telling tales of a flooded New Orleans and people sleeping on overpasses, none of it seemed real. It seemed impossible until my power came back and I was able to see the carnage for myself.

When Louisiana needed leaders most, it got a governor who could not stop crying and looked like a deer caught in the headlights. We were forced to accept a state leader who did not realize telling the president she needed all federal firepower is not the same as a formal request apparently reading the U.S. Constitution is not a requirement to be governor of Louisiana.

While our citizens were sleeping in a collapsing Superdome and on overpasses or anywhere else they could find comfort Sen. Mary Landrieu tried to relate by telling them her family lost our camp on the north shore. Landrieu was congratulating her fellow politicians for holding a special session as her hometown was underwater and the dead citizens who elected her were being eaten in the streets by rats.

Then again, why would she care? Crap flows downhill, not up to the doors of her multi-million dollar suburban Washington house.

And who can forget Mayor Nagins dream of a chocolate New Orleans?

There was one bright spot for our citizens to come out of this disaster then-U. S. Rep. Bobby Jindal.

In an Aug. 29, 2006, National Review article titled Waste in the Eye of the Storm, Jindal pointed out all levels of fraud and corruption that went into recovery. This fraud included the Army Corps of Engineers passing up lower bids for reconstruction and overpaying by 20 percent. There was $2 billion in taxpayer money spent for citizens in need relief that never reached them. Debit cards loaded with $2,000 were being given to residents who spent their relief money on Louis Vuitton handbags, evenings at strip clubs and Dom Perignon champagne.

As governor, Jindal has already taken steps to ensure that this level of corruption has come to an end in our state. More importantly, as Gustav was approaching, Jindal guaranteed looting would not plague New Orleans again by calling in 16,000 National Guard troops from other states, stationing men along the East Bank in New Orleans and along Gen. de Gaulle Drive in Algiers.

Fortunately, this security never had to be tested as during Katrina. Under our new leadership, the most extraorinary emergency evacuation in American history occurred the weekend before Gustav reached our shores. Nearly 2 million citizens were evacuated from the Gulf Coast region in less than 48 hours. The beleaguered FEMA chipped in and transported citizens from New Orleans to Shreveport, Fort Chaffee, Ark., Dallas and Tennessee. This monumental effort even garnered praise in a Sept. 2, 2008, Washington Post article called Officials quick to praise emergency response.

Mark Merritt the former deputy chief of staff to Clinton-era FEMA head James Lee Witt was very positive in his assessment.

Theyve stepped up to the plate, Merritt said. The difference is night and day with Katrina.

While south Louisiana is hardly back to normal, there is a distinct difference our new leadership has provided. While many residents are without power and in need, we are not as hopeless as we once were. Our citizens are pulling together as I hoped we would three long years ago.

It is too early to tell, but maybe my optimism following Katrina was a few years short. Im hoping Gustav will prove to this country that we Louisianians are a tenacious bunch.