Republican Convention Hit by Gustav - Mayor Diaz Leads Hurricane Relief Campaign
By Ed Somers
September 15, 2008
As Republican delegates descended on Minneapolis/St. Paul for their convention on September 1-4 and nomination of Senator John McCain (AZ) and Governor Sarah Palin (AK), the mood turned somber as the nation watched Hurricane Gustav head towards the Gulf Coast and millions of people evacuate to cities across the nation.
Conference of Mayors President Miami Mayor Manny Diaz – who had planned on attending the convention in St. Paul – stayed in Miami to coordinate evacuation relief efforts and directed the USCM staff to establish an emergency command center at the convention to help mayors and cities in the storm’s path – and cities wishing to provide assistance.
On the first morning after the storm hit, Diaz in Miami – and USCM Second Vice President Burnsville (MN) Mayor Elizabeth Kautz and Conference of Mayors CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran at the command center in St. Paul – led a conference call with mayors from the Gulf Coast and across the nation on the impact of the storm. Participating in that first call were Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Mobile Mayor Sam Jones, Meridian (MS) Mayor John Robert Smith, and many others.
During the conference call, Holden reported that his city had been severely hit by Hurricane Gustav and was in desperate need of help. Holden said that FEMA is “about the same” as in the past and was not meeting his city’s needs. Baton Rouge was not ordered to evacuate, and therefore the citizens remained there and were bearing the brunt of the storm with 300,000 homes without power, diesel fuel supplies running short, and a desperate need for tarps, cleaning supplies, water, and much more.
Nagin reported that thankfully, New Orleans had been spared from extensive damage, but that he did need help from doctors for his hospitals.
Diaz Calls FEMA Director
Immediately following the first conference call, Diaz called and spoke to FEMA Director David Paulison. Diaz informed Paulison of the specific equipment and resources desperately needed by the city and citizens of Baton Rouge as personally stated by Holden during the mayors’ conference call.
Paulison thanked Diaz for bringing the Baton Rouge situation to his attention. Paulison also informed Diaz that the counties west of New Orleans were badly hit.
Paulison told Diaz that because of his call, Paulison would be bringing President George W. Bush with him to Baton Rouge the next day to personally inspect and address the needs of the city.
“Clearly, the Baton Rouge story is not being told in the media. The nation’s mayors are concerned that the needs of the people of Baton Rouge are not being met and mayors are rallying to their aid,” said Cochran in a press statement.
Diaz, an expert on hurricane preparedness and recovery, advised the nation’s mayors and media to remember that the real work begins after the national media leaves. “The work is not over yet; it is just beginning. Often some of the bigger damage is done to homes and other structures after the storm leaves,” warned Diaz.
Several other steps were taken immediately following that first conference call on September 1.
Mayors on the call, such as Jones of Mobile, Bob Foster of Long Beach (CA) and Smith of Meridian, began coordination efforts with Holden to send supplies to Baton Rouge.
Nagin reported that any supplies that he had left would be immediately sent to Baton Rogue.
In addition, Cochran contacted Doctors Without Borders in Manhattan to help New Orleans with their medical needs.
Smith reported that he was working with a 29 county relief effort for the smaller cities hit on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
In addition, Cochran sent an action alert to all USCM members urging them to send help to Baton Rouge, with a specific list of needs provided by Holden and his hurricane coordinator Mike Futrell.
Business Council Responds
In an effort to provide support and coordinate corporate response to the needs of Baton Rouge and other hurricane impacted cities, the Conference reached out to its more than 100 Business Council members.
To facilitate coordination between members of the Mayors Business Council and Baton Rouge, specifically, the Conference instituted a communication process with mayors and members of the business community advising corporate members of the specific needs of Baton Rouge, linking them to key disaster management personnel, and providing a continuous flow of information and needs assessments.
Specific outreach and coordination efforts took place between the Conference, Baton Rouge, Wal-Mart and Walgreen Co.
Louisville Mayor Jerry E. Abramson reached out to Cochran late September 4 regarding the airlift of 1,500 people who had fled from New Orleans and had been transported by FEMA to Louisville’s Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center.
At issue was the return of the evacuees – with their expectations heightened due to Nagin saying on television that people could return.
On the morning of September 5, conflicting information was given to Cochran and Abramson regarding the airlifts. That confusion was cleared up after extensive conversations with FEMA Intergovernmental staff Ed Cash as well as FEMA coordinator Bob Powers.
Abramson raised the question of whether or not National Guard planes could be used to return residents to New Orleans. But FEMA officials were clear that the Secretary of Defense had ordered that National Guard planes could not be used for return flights. Hence, FEMA had to contract with commercial airliners to transport New Orleans residents back home. These discussions continued through the weekend until the residents were successfully repatriated.
At the same time, airlifts were ongoing from many cities including Nashville and Fort Smith (AR) and by Sunday the mission was accomplished.
RNC Moves Forward
As the situation in the Gulf Coast became clearer after Gustav hit land, the Republican National Convention moved forward on an altered schedule.
As planned, the Conference of Mayors co-hosted a reception for local officials on September 2 at the historic Landmark Center in St. Paul along with the Republican Mayors and Local Officials (RMLO), the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties.
The reception was moderated by RMLO President Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. Cornett had been scheduled to address the RNC but was unable to do so due to the abbreviated convention schedule that resulted from Hurricane Gustav.
Kautz used her comments to the joint reception as an opportunity to brief the officials on the mayoral response to Hurricane Gustav. Kautz told the gathering, “that is what mayors and local officials do – we act!”
“Mayor” Palin Picked as VP Nominee
With the selection of first-term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as Senator John McCain’s running mate, there was plenty of discussion of the importance of “mayors” at the RNC.
Palin served two terms as mayor of Wasilla (AK), a city with 5,469 residents in the 2000 US Census, located 29 miles north of the port of Anchorage, from 1996 to 2002.
She was elected by her peers to serve as president of the Alaska Conference of Mayors. In this role, she worked with local, state and federal officials to promote solutions to the needs of Alaska’s communities.