Spill tests promise of La.'s governor
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal walks through oil that got past booms as he tours a land bridge built by the Louisiana National Guard on Friday in Grand Isle, La.
Share with others:
OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO -- Strapped into a National Guard Black Hawk, peering down at green water mottled with oil sheen, the most serious man in Louisiana is starting to sound ridiculous.
Over the helicopter's intercom, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is explaining to New Orleans' mayor about two of his state's efforts to keep back the oil slick. One is named for a Mexican-food entree. The other is named for a Cajun sausage.
The "burrito levee" and the "boudin bag" are part of a vast effort, overseen by Mr. Jindal, to hold back a slick that is already spitting up tar balls onto his coast. He also has a plan to create more Louisiana, building new barrier islands in the oil's path.
"It makes so much sense. It's so obvious. We gotta do it," Mr. Jindal said into his headphones. His call for a massive government response stands in apparent contrast to his previous calls for small government.
Indeed, in a crisis marked by desperate improvisation -- where the search for solutions has turned to golf balls and top hats -- nobody is responding with Mr. Jindal's frenetic vigor. Local observers say the oil spill is testing the promise that almost three years ago made this son of Indian immigrants governor: that he could keep his catastrophe-scarred state safe, through good data and hard work.
"He's there because of Katrina; he's there because of the failed response to a disaster, and I think he recognizes that," said Louisiana State University political science professor Kirby Goidel. "He absolutely has sort of over-learned that mistake."
Mr. Jindal said Monday that his state would not slow its response, despite the news that the oil company BP was siphoning about 1,000 barrels of oil a day out of a pipe that began leaking around April 22 -- a fraction of the total spill.
"We are nowhere close to the finish line," Mr. Jindal said in a statement. He noted that oil has already been found along 29 miles of the state's coast: "Oil continues to pour into the Gulf and hit our shores."
Mr. Jindal, 38, has been governor since 2008, capping a political rise that started when he was appointed to head the state's health and hospitals department at age 24. He still struggles with political aesthetics: In the first days after the crisis, Mr. Jindal showed up at a news conference in a broiling marsh wearing a blue blazer. Only recently has he donned the standard governor-in-crisis uniform of rolled-up shirtsleeves.
And Mr. Jindal was widely believed to have blown his first real test as a national politician: Last year, he was chosen to give the Republican response to President Barack Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress. But his speech -- urging smaller government, and criticizing money for monitoring another source of natural disasters, volcanoes -- was criticized as flat and over-familiar.
But now, Mr. Jindal's skills seem as right for this moment as they were wrong for that one.
"Bobby Jindal is a first-class, straight-A warrior," said Chris Moran, who owns a marina, a restaurant and a charter-fishing business in the oilfield hub of Port Fourchon, La. He said he liked that Mr. Jindal had visited his area (although Mr. Moran wished the governor stayed for a steak), and admired his efforts to have National Guardsmen use huge sandbags to plug up holes that bring Gulf water into inland marshes. "He's probably the most-suited governor for a natural disaster."
Mr. Jindal's response to the crisis has differed from the Republican star next door, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who has downplayed the threat and urged tourists not to cancel their trips to his state's beach towns.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Barbour compared the spill to the sheen of gasoline from a water-ski boat. "We don't wash our face in it, but it doesn't stop us from jumping off the boat to ski," he said.
Mr. Jindal, by contrast, has treated the spill as an existential threat, saying repeatedly that what's at stake "is a way of life for us."
To fight it, he has assigned himself a catchall role that includes spotting oil sheen from National Guard helicopters, badgering the federal government for money and supplies, and giving hyper-detailed news conferences.
In one appearance a week ago Friday in New Orleans, he gave updates on the size of tar balls washing up in Port Fourchon (up to eight inches), the number of sandbags to be air-dropped (1,200), and state money spent to date ($3.7 million). He also provided a weather forecast ("The winds continue to come out of the southeast, 10 to 15 knots.").
Mr. Jindal has emphasized, repeatedly, that Louisiana isn't waiting for anyone else's help. He has touted the benefits of home-grown designs, like the boudin (pronounced "boo-DAN") bags -- long, sand-filled booms that lie on beach sand -- and burrito levees, which are boudin bags covered in another layer of sand.
"One of the mistakes that we made [during Katrina], we maybe waited on somebody to help us," said Mitch Landrieu, the newly elected Democratic mayor of New Orleans, who has appeared at Mr. Jindal's side at a number of press events. In this crisis, Mr. Landrieu said, "It's clear to us that BP doesn't know what the answer is. ... We need to prepare ourselves."
Mr. Jindal's biggest idea: building a protective line of barrier islands, using mud dredged from the gulf bottom. The governor has said that, if the federal government signs off on the plan, land could emerge from the gulf within 10 days. That plan has raised objections from environmentalists, who say that it hasn't been properly vetted.
In Louisiana, Democrats have criticized Mr. Jindal for not responding quickly enough in the first days of the spill. And Democratic state Rep. Sam Jones said he thought Mr. Jindal's response was at odds with his previous calls for limited government. "No small government ... can go rebuild a barrier island," Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Jindal's staff responded that, ultimately, all of this government action will be paid for by BP.
A more basic objection comes from oil-spill experts: It might not work. They say it will be very difficult to protect all of the state's maze of coastal marshes -- especially if hurricanes help push oily water ashore.
"For the cost involved, the chances of being successful at doing any good ... are minuscule," said MIT professor Jerome Milgram.
Last weekend, Mr. Jindal took off in an open-sided National Guard helicopter from a far, swampy corner of New Orleans. In a few minutes, the helicopter was over the Chandeleur Islands -- an arc of sand and swamps miles out in the gulf. Around one island, the water was unnaturally shiny.
"You've got some sheen over here to the left," Mr. Jindal said over the intercom. "Make a note where we see sheen."
As they flew, Mr. Jindal laid out the state's plans -- the boudin and the burritos and the sandbags -- to a collection of local officials strapped in around him.
After he had finished, Mr. Landrieu spoke up. "At the end of the day, they've gotta cap this well, period," the mayor said. "And they better hurry."
"Amen," the governor said.
First Published May 23, 2010 12:26 am