"She's phenomenal," my sister commented the other day, about Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin's poise and mettle in mobilizing the relief after the F5 tornado in Moore. Indeed, a star was born in the ever-present Fallin, and the national name recognition from it could land her on the Republican vice-presidential short list in 2016.
The politics of disaster management is nothing new. But last week in Oklahoma -- and last October's Superstorm Sandy which ravaged the New Jersey coastline -- set a precedent for a governor's expected response.
It is increasingly important for leaders to show up and be hands on. This is particularly so in this era of better transportation and constant TV coverage of every event. Fallin appeared on national TV before 7 a.m. the next morning. Christie's wet fleece jacket was "fused" to his body for weeks during the hurricane recovery, he told Saturday Night Live.
And it can be politically damning if leaders don't hit the ground, no matter what the reason. President George W. Bush appeared detached as he peered through his airplane window at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Moreover, it's not FEMA or the Red Cross or other programs that get the credit. It's the leaders who are there to get the relief effort moving. They become the "face" of the crisis, a former employee of the FEMA Inspector General's office told me recently. So a chief executive of a state has to do more than control the situation from the governor's desk.
For instance, Missouri's Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon was "a ubiquitous commander of disasters" after a series of floods and an F5 tornado in Joplin, as the Lake News Online wrote in 2011. He "assured" people that aid was on the way and "intervened" when local responders needed it most. He was all over it, a few residents told me.
Finally, it's one of the few times that strains between local and federal governments and party differences are put on hold. Fallin and Christie just met with President Obama in their states on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively. When Christie met with Obama the first time last year, not long after his keynote convention speech for Mitt Romney, some national Republicans criticized Christie. But back home, Christie's polls soared (and remain high) because he was seen as putting people above partisan politics.
Back in the winter of 1948-49, Western ranchers sprung into action with "Operation Haylift" when snows threatened sheep and cattle with exposure and blocked feed supply roads. Utah was "hardest hit," the Associated Press reported at the time. Utah's Republican Gov. J. Bracken Lee -- no fan of federal government spending according to various accounts -- declared a state of emergency and announced "$50,000 in funds" from President Harry Truman, a Democrat. U.S. air force C-82 cargo planes dropped feed, the Salt Lake Tribune recalled in 2010, as "federal and state governments, communities and people cooperated."
It shouldn't take a disaster to forge such cooperation.
Adam Silbert, an attorney, served as a field organizer for the 2012 Obama campaign.