Crisis has a way of defining leaders. It tests their mettle and tells us whether they're up to the task of guiding us safely through troubled times. September 11 did that for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Hurricane Ivan may do the same for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
As the storm bore down on the city, Nagin took the lead in coordinating and speaking for the city's emergency preparedness team. While hurricane forecasters predicted early on that the storm would turn northward and make landfall in northwest Florida, Nagin consistently told the public that New Orleans was in the cross hairs and that we should all prepare to leave. Then, as Ivan kept moving westward, Nagin proclaimed that New Orleans lay in the storm's path and told residents to flee.
It would have been easy for him -- for any mayor -- to defer to professional hurricane watchers, but Nagin instead offered his own forecast: New Orleans was going to take a hit. Turns out he was wrong, but not by much -- and he was no further off the mark than the experts, which was his point all along. No one can truly predict what hurricanes will do, particularly when they're still churning in the Gulf of Mexico. In the face of such uncertainty, the best course of action is the most cautious (yet disruptive) one: evacuation.
Above all, the mayor kept his cool. He was deliberate but confident in his pronouncements, and he articulated his decisions clearly and consistently. His news conferences kept citizens informed of the latest developments, and he made a point of going to local TV stations during their newscasts to give citizens the very latest information -- along with his assurances that New Orleans was ready. There was no doubt as to who was in charge.
Nagin also made a point of keeping the City Council and other agencies in the loop and on the dais with him. His recent political squabbles with the City Council dissipated as the storm approached. He and council members stood shoulder to shoulder in urging citizens to leave while reassuring them that their government and their political leaders were doing all they could to protect them. Although not everyone honored the citywide curfew, Nagin was right to impose it, and Police Chief Eddie Compass shone in warning looters that they would be dealt with harshly.
Hurricanes have a way of reducing things to their common denominator. For example, storms pay no heed to political boundaries. In the face of that reality, it's important for local and state political leaders to coordinate their efforts. Nagin and Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard performed masterfully in that regard, but they should include Northshore and River Parishes officials next time.
Hurricanes also are unforgiving of weaknesses and inefficiencies. In that regard, Louisiana has some work to do in coordinating the decisions of local leaders with the state's responsibilities for highway traffic control. The state's new "contraflow" plan for using all lanes of interstate highways to get evacuees out of southeast Louisiana hit some major snags. Gov. Kathleen Blanco now has a chance to shine in the aftermath of Ivan by making sure there is better coordination -- and faster implementation-- the next time contraflow is used. Ivan spared most of Louisiana, but he gave us a stern warning. We have much to be thankful for, but we also have a lot of work to do. If we hope to do better next time -- and next time may not be just a drill, as Ivan proved to be -- our leaders need to stay on their mettle.