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A 'new normal' for avoiding political storms

By Ed Hornick, CNN
A U.S. Coast Guard boat patrols the choppy waters off  Liberty Island hours after Hurricane Irene blew through Sunday.
A U.S. Coast Guard boat patrols the choppy waters off Liberty Island hours after Hurricane Irene blew through Sunday.
  • Hurricane Irene caused major damage up and down U.S. East Coast
  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were bluntly pro-active
  • CNN analyst says that preparing too much is the new normal in the post-Katrina world

Washington (CNN) -- "Get the hell off the beach."

That was the order New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gave residents on Friday as Hurricane Irene, still hundreds of miles away, churned in the Atlantic Ocean, projected to hit his state.

Christie, perhaps knowing all too well about the political fallout that comes with natural disaster response, was not taking any chances. Nor was the ever-so-blunt New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ordered an unprecedented shutdown of the city's transportation system and evacuations of low-lying areas.

Despite the less-than-expected intensity of the storm, weakened before it reached them, residents weren't too critical of the inconvenience.

Some even praised the political leaders' decision.

"(They) deserve a lot of credit for the way in which they unhesitatingly took the initiative and ensured that, as far as government was concerned, preparations were as thorough as possible," a New York Post editorial read Monday. "And none of them deserved the carping and second-guessing that was creeping into some commentary late yesterday."

Bloomberg and Christie were heavily criticized for their response to the Northeast blizzard last year. Christie was on vacation in Florida during the storm and did not come back immediately; Bloomberg drew flak for not allocating enough resources to tackle the massive storm.

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Ronald Brownstein, CNN senior political analyst and editorial director of the National Journal Group, said this type of blunt, all-in response is the "new normal" since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.

"I think every elected official, those in executive positions, are going to worry much less about being criticized for doing too much than being exposed for doing too little," Brownstein said. "Most of what government does, most of what we report on is theoretical, abstract to most Americans ... but there are moments when it simply becomes apparent whether or not you can run the thing that you were elected to run."

That moment came for former President George W. Bush during Katrina. His administration's lackluster response became a lesson for politicians across the spectrum.

"Any time there's a hurricane, all presidents and politicians think of Katrina," said CNN contributor Pete Dominick. "Nobody wants to be George Bush and 'Heck of a job Brownie' ... (referring to then-Federal Emergency Management Administration Director Michael Brown, a political appointee who took the brunt of Katrina response criticism). I think people are reminded of what government's role is."

Presidential historian Julian Zelizer said politicians of all stripes knew what was at stake this time around.

"The failure to prepare and respond effectively to this disaster could be politically devastating to the standing of any politician," he wrote in a commentary. "The failure to clean up the damage from the hurricane in the next few days, swiftly and effectively, could undercut any political future."

Chad Sweet, who served as chief of staff to former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, said Monday that FEMA Director Craig Fugate is one that tries to stay ahead of events and embraces social media to communicate.

"What Mr. Fugate is doing is prepositioning the assets before the storm hits and being there," he said. "We've heard this across the board, whether it's Republican or Democratic leaders across the states, thanking FEMA for being forward-leaning. That's the right model."

Sweet also praised Bloomberg and Christie for sounding the alarms early and working closely with FEMA and other federal agencies, adding, "we saw leadership in close collaboration as a team."

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