What Hurricane Katrina Can Teach Us About Leadership

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour says politicians shouldn’t withhold bad news. People need to know so they can deal with it.

When Hurricane Katrina tore into the Gulf Coast states ten years ago, leadership was in as short supply as tarpaulins. President George W. Bush was excoriated for his inept handling of the crisis, as was Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans.

But in Mississippi, former Governor Haley Barbour, author of America’s Great Storm: Leading Through Hurricane Katrina  received plaudits from all sides for his decisive, non-partisan leadership and political clout, which secured $24 billion in disaster relief from Congress. (Related: Protecting a New Generation of Poisoned Kids After Katrina.)

Talking from his home in Mississippi, he describes what Katrina taught him about leadership; explains how a new word, “slabbed,” was coined; and why he still stands by President Bush.

When did you realize that Katrina was going to make landfall in Mississippi? Take us back to the days before August 29th.

I returned from an economic development trip in Asia about five days before the storm hit. By the end of the week it was clear that this was going to be a big, bad storm. But it wasn’t clear it was going to hit Mississippi. Then, on Saturday night, the head of the National Hurricane Center, Dr. Max Mayfield, called to say, “This is going to be a Camille-like storm.” Hurricane Camille  hit Mississippi in 1969: one of only three storms ever to come ashore as a Category 5 hurricane.

He said, “What can I do to help?”

I said, “If you can get the news media to start saying on TV and radio that this storm is going to be like Camille, you will help us with our biggest problem, which is that people aren’t evacuating.”

There was hurricane fatigue. People here had had two big scares over the previous year and both times the storms had jogged to the east. So our people weren’t evacuating. But after the news media started referring to this as a storm like Camille we had a hugely improved evacuation. (Related: Beyond Katrina: 7 Portraits of Grit and Determination)

How did Katrina compare with previous megastorms?

We thought Camille was the gold standard: 200 mph winds, with about 200 tornadoes. Katrina’s winds were only about 150 mph. But it was so much bigger. The eye of Camille was only eight miles across. The eye of Katrina was 32 miles across. And it pushed in front of it the greatest storm surge ever recorded by the National Weather Service.

At Waveland, Mississippi, the town closest to the eye of the storm, the storm surge was about 38 feet. The 150 mph winds were terrible, but the vast majority of the damage was caused by the storm surge. We created a new verb, “slabbed,” as in “My house was slabbed,” meaning there was nothing left but a concrete slab. We had tens of thousands of houses where that was all that was left. (Related: New Orleans Door to Door)

President Bush flew to Mobile, Alabama to meet with you and other governors. Many Republicans joined the chorus of criticism directed at him. You remained loyal. Why?

On the Friday after the storm, along with Governor Bob Riley of Alabama, I met President Bush at the Mobile Coast Guard Station. When we were walking out to get on a helicopter that would take President Bush and I to Mississippi, the President made that remark— “Good job, Brownie!” — to Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, which would be interpreted by people as showing he was out of touch with what was happening.  

But I understood that for the next several years Mississippi was going to have to be partners with the federal government. My Momma taught me: "Praise in public; criticize in private." And that’s the way I’ve tried to run my political relationships.

As we went along, President Bush leaned as far forward as federal law would permit to give us the maximum support after Congress passed special emergency disaster legislation in December. What they did in the Gulf States—a plan we designed in Mississippi, became the model for Sandy in New Jersey and New York. And I give Bush a lot of credit for that.

You gave a controversial order that “people who shoot looters won’t be prosecuted.” Any regrets?

I don’t regret it at all. In a news conference on the Tuesday after the storm, a reporter said that in New Orleans the government was confiscating people’s private weapons and would we confiscate people’s guns in Mississippi?

I said, “No, we won’t confiscate people’s guns. People may need guns to protect their property or lives. And in Mississippi, people who shoot looters won’t be prosecuted.”

My point is we didn’t have much looting and nobody shot a looter. Compare the looting in Mississippi to other places; it was a very small fraction. (Related: 10 Years After Katrina, Some Are 'Homeless in Their Own Homes')

You were widely praised for your lobbying efforts in Washington after Katrina. Take us inside the corridors of power and how you used your political clout to get $24 billion for Mississippi?

I’ll never forget one day in November, I walked into the Capitol, and a voice said, “Haley?” I looked over and it was Congressman Barney Frank  from Massachusetts: liberal, Northeastern Democrat. Here I am, a conservative, Southern Republican.

He and I had only met one time, on a TV show. But he called me over and said, “I understand y’all have a plan for what you need for Katrina. You send it to me and I will send it to every Democratic member of the House and ask every one of them to vote for it.”

This was the attitude of everybody in Congress. We want to help, tell us what we should do. Ultimately we got $24 billion. And we put it to good use.

Seventy five percent of the housing damage from Katrina was in Louisiana, but Mississippi received seventy percent of FEMA’s housing funds. There are other examples. Some people would say this is a classic example of pork barrel politics. How do you plead?

Louisiana got $71 billion of federal aid after Katrina, about three times as much as Mississippi. Many people have actually criticized me for not getting more money [Laughs] But I think the idea of pork barrel flies in the face of the sentiment of the American people. The American people told Congress they didn’t think enough was being done, and so Congress had to do things that were unprecedented. Barney Frank and I have always been on the opposite sides of almost everything. But, like the people he represented and the people of America, he wanted to help.

Your book is also a manual about leadership. What were the three most important lessons you learned from Katrina?

I list ten lessons in the book, some of which were learned and some of which were confirmed. In a mega-disaster, preparation is indispensable. Whether it’s a community, a state, a business, or a family, there’s no substitution for preparation.

We prepared for another Camille, which turned out to be a bad model. Katrina was nothing like Camille. It was much worse in many ways. But being prepared, having a plan, helps you even when you can’t execute the plan.

Second thing: Be open and inform the public through the press what the reality is, what you’re trying to do about it, how you’re trying to do it, and tell the truth. There’s nothing more damaging to the ability to lead than if people think you’re not telling the truth, or if they learn you’re not telling the truth. Many politicians don’t want to give the bad news. But people need the bad news to see how they’re going to deal with it.

The last lesson is: have a good team and trust your team. There has never been a governor, president, or CEO where it’s all about one person. When you have a good team, give them authority commensurate with their responsibility.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter.

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