‘There’s no way that the government ever looks good after a natural disaster, because there will always be the sense that more could have been done.”
That’s a quote from presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, commenting about President Donald Trump’s assessment of aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Brinkley wrote the book “The Great Deluge,” which detailed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. He writes that natural disasters cannot, and should not, be turned into political victories.
But that’s just what has happened here in Hawaii.
Through the series of scary approaches, near misses and pockets of localized heavy damage, Hawaii political leaders have emerged not only unscathed, but, in some cases, remade.
Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim has had to deal with the stark realities of the eruption that claimed hundreds of homes and changed the geography of the island. He, more than any other leader in Hawaii, is well suited to this kind of leadership, having been through many similar events as the longtime director of Hawaii County Civil Defense. That he faced such tremendous challenges in these golden years of his career is an amazing stroke of fate. He gets to do what he’s best at doing.
Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Kauai’s indoor-outdoor executive, handled his island’s flooding with assured calm. Carvalho is never the fly-in-a-helicopter-and-look-down leader. He’s on the ground, in the mix, telling people, “We’re here with you. We’ll be here the whole time.”
Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa had to respond to flooding and landslides and a destructive brush fire that claimed homes in Lahaina, but the island as a whole was spared mass crisis. Arakawa has received his share of criticism, but as Olivia approached he appeared cool and full of plans and answers.
And Kirk Caldwell, wearing his action palaka, talked about storm prep in specific terms rather than cliche generalities. Specificity is good. Knowing what is really being done makes everyone feel a bit better.
But still, Harry, Bernard, Alan and Kirk were spared the full brunt of Lane and Olivia, which could have very well flattened their counties and sunk their political legacies.
No one has benefited more from all of this averted mayhem than Gov. David Ige. The series of unfortunate events provided an incredible opportunity for him to erase the image of his missile alert fumbling. Every press conference was like a campaign commercial where he could look like he was organized and in control. Kim and Caldwell took every opportunity to praise Ige’s leadership as doom headed our way. I lost count of how many times Caldwell fawned over what he described as Ige’s unprecedented coordination among city, state and federal agencies.
The storms gave an office-dwelling wonk like Ige a chance to practice the sort of outdoorsy bravado sometimes required of leaders. He didn’t have to actually get out there in blistering wind or water up to his neck. His leadership and preparedness weren’t put to the ultimate test. He just got to talk about it. That’s the cynical way to look at it, though. The blessing is that everyone got to go through some practice drills and readiness simulations.
Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or firstname.lastname@example.org.