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Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour talks about his book, “America’s Great Storm,” at a recent reading and signing.

JACK WEATHERLY — Barbour’s book tells of Mississippi’s finest hour

JACK WEATHERLY

JACK WEATHERLY

The Flood of 1927 was the most widespread and disruptive natural event to happen to Mississippi in recorded history.

The flood, which also inundated Arkansas and Louisiana along the Mississippi, has spawned many a book and many a tale.

Now Mississippi has Hurricane Katrina as its greatest state tragedy, and its finest triumph, as Haley Barbour tells it in his book, “America’s Great Storm.”

Katrina was indiscriminate in whom it struck and how it struck.

For New Orleans, it was flooding caused by breaks in the levee systems.

For the Mississippi Coast, it was near-total destruction.

In addition to the 100-mile-an-hour-plus winds, the immense storm that made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005 slammed a surge 30 feet high – topped by waves of six to eight feet tall – into the coastal counties, and caused flooding deep into the interior.

This book is about Mississippi, told by a Mississippian with the most-dubious privilege of managing a disaster nuclear in power and scope.

Barbour, now a former two-term governor and still a force of nature in the political realm, (not the least part of which is as a lobbyist), which for him extends from Jackson to Washington, D.C., and points between and beyond.

america great storm_cover_rgbHis book, co-authored by Jere Nash, tells of how he guided Mississippi out of the ruins left by the most destructive natural disaster in terms of property lost and third-worst in terms of lives lost, 1,833, in the history of the nation.

In Mississippi, 216,000 people were displaced, 238 died and 17,600 were injured. Far and away, it took the worst of it in property lost. More than 60,000 housing units were destroyed and another 160,000 were damaged.

From the air, Barbour could see that debris had left everything uniformly gray from Waveland to Gulfport, a landscape ripe for chaos and despair.

Barbour started with the removal of the debris – 47 million cubic yards of it – before beginning restoration of power and making roads navigable in the region before starting the rebuilding, much like the Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II.

At one point, President George W. Bush wanted to “federalize” the effort by sending the Third Army in, but Barbour said thanks but the National Guard could handle it.

Such top-down thinking proved to be a flawed approach, given the scope of the task.

In Mississippi, within a few days of the Aug. 29 landfall, FEMA conceded that it couldn’t provide more than one-tenth of what it had promised the state in terms of food, ice and water.

Rather than waiting too long for too little from FEMA, the Pentagon provided an airlift with C-5 transport planes to keep body and soul together.

FEMA trailers for temporary housing were “wildly insufficient,” Barbour recounts. More like campers, according to Barbour, they were eventually replaced with the godsend of so-called Mississippi or Katrina cottages, which offered permanent, hurricane-resistant shelter, and much more room.

Barbour, nevertheless, credited the federal agency’s Mississippi-based operations for significant help.

Barbour recounts Bush’s infamous “good job, Brownie,” comment to Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, which was reported by the press and “greatly compounded public perception that that the president didn’t even know the federal effort had problems that were obvious to everyone else.”

In the telling and retelling of the comment, it morphs into Bush saying it while he is flying over New Orleans, literally looking down his nose. The flyover did happen, though, for what it’s worth, according to Barbour, the fateful words were uttered on the ground in Mobile as Brown, the president, governor and members of the press walked toward the Marine One helicopter for a hop to Gulfport.

Brown had asked Barbour how FEMA was performing in Mississippi, and, Barbour recounts that he “equivocated and gave a non-answer,” prompting Bush’s seeming Marie Antoinette quote.

To say the least, the comment didn’t play well in New Orleans, which lost 1,600 lives in the flooding, leading to deep-seated acrimony against Bush and his administration.

Historian Douglas Brinkley has even suggested that FEMA’s initial response and passive and bumbling subsequent efforts were designed to wipe some of the undesirable areas of New Orleans off the map.

Barbour praised corporations, in particular Mississippi Power, for taking extraordinary steps. And he lavished praise on volunteers such as philanthropist Jim Barksdale, who headed up Barbour’s citizens council that oversaw the efforts, and the rank-and-file workers, both private and public. And First Lady Marsha Barbour, his eyes, ears, and sometimes hands, on the ground.

(Barbour has made the statement time and again in his continuing book tour that the state’s collective response to Katrina did more than anything ever to improve the Mississippi image.)

He even credits news organizations, especially the Biloxi Sun-Herald, which won the top Pulitzer prize, for public service, among Mississippi-based media. Not so so much the “outside” press, whom he saw as headline chasers.

Mississippians in Congress, especially Sen. Thad Cochran, who was then chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, got Mississippi the billions it needed beyond the Stafford Act, which gave the federal government authority to respond to natural disasters – though not of the scale in Mississippi.

Barbour used the expression “the devil is in the details” two times too many in this book. Once is plenty.

Yet it might be said of the book that its details took the devil out of it. They paint a plausible picture of maneuvering that led to good ends, when otherwise, with fewer details, the achievements might look like the result of mere “backroom politics.”

He concedes that he “made a lot of bad decisions in the Katrina recovery and rebuilding,” but adds that he “made a whole lot of decisions.”

He doesn’t let us know those bad decisions (with the exception of not talking straight with Brown?), perhaps like wrong play calls in a football game that the home team won when the odds were stacked against it.

People who were out of the state – such as this writer – starting early in Barbour’s eight years in office were fortunate to have missed out on Katrina.

This business reporter comes in the wake of two failed megaprojects on Barbour’s watch and a third (the Kemper County power station) that calls into question his forecasting skills.

Nevertheless, by all accounts, including this one, his was a masterly performance by a political leader in a time of crisis.

Ricky Mathews, then publisher of the Sun-Herald, doesn’t curb his admiration of Barbour.

“Haley . . . will go down in history as the gold standard for how a chief executive should lead when the previously unthinkable becomes the undeniable reality,” Mathews says in the foreword.

“We have never seen anyone like him.”

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

About Jack Weatherly

One comment

  1. My personal and professional experience with Katrina was that both the state and my county were more hindrance than help, even to the point of obstructing people taking care of their own business, while choosing not to provide basic government services that could have been maintained. I never once saw a government worker in my neighborhood for weeks after Katrina, except the postman who came every day. But I did see government workers butting in gas lines and obstructing traffic. I remain unimpressed.

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