As the grim situation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast slowly and painfully improves, the incomprehensible unpreparedness of government for an entirely forseeable disaster becomes ever more clear. Americans from all over the political spectrum are sensing a failure of leadership when the country needs it most.
In times of crisis, such as natural disasters, people look to their leaders for guidance, reassurance and hope. Natural disasters have ravaged Connecticut from time to time, and the response of our leaders to those past crises may hold lessons for today's leadership on how to cope with the present one.
Abraham Ribicoff and the Floods of 1955
Abraham Ribicoff became governor of Connecticut in 1955, following a close and bitter contest with incumbent governor John Davis Lodge.
When two hurricanes in 1955 caused massive flooding all over Connecticut, Gov. Ribicoff immediately took charge of the situation. He ordered in the National Guard, directed relief efforts from the State Armory and personally visited many of the flood sites.
After the floodwaters receeded, Ribicoff's recovery programs helped to get the state back on its feet. Ribicoff was always a popular politician in Connecticut, but his response to the floods, just seven months into his first term as governor, helped to cement that popularity. In 1958, he won re-election by a landslide, partially thanks to the success of his recovery programs.
Thomas Meskill Gets Snowed
In 1970, Thomas Meskill was elected as Connecticut's first Republican governor since John Davis Lodge (1951-55). His tenure was an unsteady and forgettable one, but it seemed in 1973 that he would probably be re-elected.
However, when a severe ice and snow storm struck Connecticut during the winter of 1973-74, Gov. Meskill was nowhere to be found. He was on a skiing vacation in Vermont, and apparently had decided not to return to the state. The image of the governor skiing while many in Connecticut huddled miserable without heat or electricity dropped Meskill's political fortunes like a rock. Not long after, he saw the writing on the wall and announced he wouldn't run for a second term.
Ella Grasso's political standing was at a low point in 1978, following three years of budget woes and a mounting state debt. She faced a primary challenger and dim prospects of re-election later that year.
However, Grasso demonstrated her leadership abilities when a paralyzing blizzard hit Connecticut that winter. She, as Ribicoff had, ordered in the National Guard, demanded assistance from Washington and flew to stricken areas all over the state, offering hope and promises of aid. In a notable moment that demonstrates just how visible she was during the storm, someone stamped "HELP ELLA" in large, visible letters in a field. She had obviously learned from Meskill's mistakes, and easily won re-election in 1978.
Lessons for Today
Governors of Connecticut since the 1970s have followed Grasso's lead in being seen as highly visible and active during natural disasters. A telling moment happened earlier this year, when Connecticut was hit by yet another blizzard in January. Gov. Rell, who was still recovering from a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery a month earlier, was seen at the Armory and with snow-plow drivers in South Windsor. According to the Courant, she recieved an email that read "You don't have to be Ella." People have long memories for such things.
The lesson seems to be that, during crises such as natural disasters, people want their leaders to reassure them and to take action at once. President Bush may find himself haunted by the image of vacationing while New Orleans drowned.