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How a hurricane becomes a political opportunity

August 29, 2011 |  7:08 am

Tropical Storm Irene New York City is Still Standing 8-28-11

For the vast majority of Americans who could give a seagull's tail feather about Tropical Storm/Hurricane Irene, good luck trying to find something else interesting on television over the weekend.

The storm story had everything America's East Coast-centric media loves, especially on a slow-news August weekend: UnpredictaNew Jersey Gov Chris Christie and Lt Gov Kim Guadagno talk with storm evacuees Irenebility, the possibility of death and destruction and an East Coast location.

Which makes it by definition important.

Like it or not, Americans living thousands of miles away were going to see network reporters leaning into driving winds and rains like people who didn't know enough to come in out of the rain. CNN International even went full time with the U.S. East Coast storm although it had a ready-made Asian typhoon blasting through the Philippines and Taiwan too.

The storm had a little New York mayor ordering a big evacuation, a big New Jersey governor halting  gambling in Atlantic City -- gasp! -- and a White House chief executive who acted as if there's a presidential election next year. All bipartisan instincts.

On one hand, the ubiquitous responses of Eastern governments provided a stark contrast to the pathetic incompetence of the Louisiana governor and New Orleans mayor during Katrina's devastation and aftermath a few years back.

As bad as it was in pockets, this storm didn't meet a week of hype; can you say carmageddon?PaulJRichardsAFPGty

But it did offer elected and appointed officials a golden opportunity to show how really ready they were to respond to an emergency.

That's not such a bad thing, actually, when the federal government has been in such steady ill repute the last couple of years for its inability to handle most anything, except over-spending to little effect.

Prime weapon in these political PR offensives are so-called briefings, which can actually get quite long. They provide a must-cover photo op showing an elected official on top of an emergency situation, learning, ordering. And then he/she can in turn authoritatively brief the news media and voters on where things stand. Someone is in charge.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was everywhere in recent days, checking preparations, consoling evacuees, briefing the state. Once he tore himself away from Martha's Vineyard, President Obama, who missed the earthquake during another golf game, showed he's learned his lesson from being a week late to recognize the import of the Gulf oil spill last year.

Their government agencies released copious notes on preparations, conference calls and the developing situation. And Obama hailed governments' response in a brief Rose Garden appearance Sunday.Irene New York Gov andrew Cuomo makes the rounds of a Long Island fire station 8-28-11

None of this prevented millions from losing power, millions of dollars in damages and about 20 somehow related deaths.

And, yes, such a show of government presence is self-serving for elected officials, who show up, shake hands and talk at the cameras, having done none of the dirty work all night.

But for more than two years now many Americans have grown cynical, fearful and angry watching their federal government incapable of producing even a basic budget while suing state governments acting to do what the feds haven't. And state governments suing the feds for doing things they and some federal courts regard as unconstitutional.

So, yes, there may have been more revving of engines than actual operations. But, all in all, not a bad national civics lesson for the country to see its governments actually prepared and able to act in concert to perform their most basic duties, protect the citizenry in the face of some threat, natural or otherwise.

RELATED:

Obama hails governments' storm response

What's a hurricane actually look like from space?

Golfing Obama oblivious to East Coast earthquake but gets briefed later

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: Eduardo Munoz / Reuters (New York City is still standing); Julio Cortez / Associated Press (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno talk with storm evacuees); Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images (Obama gets a briefing at FEMA headquarters, Aug. 27); Kathy Kmonicek / Associated Press (N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo makes the rounds of a Long Island fire station, Aug 28).

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