Barack Obama
Credit: The White House/Flickr

There is a reason why so many pundits have been in search of “Obama’s Katrina” for the last 8 years. For a lot of Americans, it was George W. Bush’s mishandling of that natural disaster that signaled his incompetence as president. As the story about Hurricane Matthew takes center stage, it is important to keep in mind that how presidents handle a moment like this can define their legacy. That’s because, unlike domestic affairs where Congress plays a big role, the president alone manages the executive functions of our government’s response.

That’s why, whenever a hurricane threatens Americans – as Matthew is in the process of doing right now – I think back to a story that didn’t get much attention as Hurricane Irene was threatening the East Coast (including places like New York City) back in 2011.

In May 2009, the Obama administration conducted a simulation exercise around the possibility of a Category 3 hurricane hitting New York City, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday.

The National Level Exercise, as it is known, was part of a coordinated effort by federal officials to prepare for a variety of disaster scenarios, including one very similar to what is likely to take place this weekend. President Obama himself participated in the exercise, one of the first of its kind by the new administration.

“The federal government’s preparation for this storm didn’t just begin as the clouds started to gather and form a tropical depression,” Earnest told reporters traveling with President Obama to Martha’s Vineyard.

“The federal government and this administration in particular is constantly exercising and preparing and testing and evaluating our readiness for situations like this,” he said.

In other words, the Obama administration had planned for the eventualities and was prepared. Dana Milbank chronicled the results after Irene hit.

Don’t expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right…

Before the storm struck, 18 FEMA teams deployed from Florida to Maine, repositioning as the emphasis moved to New England. Food, water, generators and tarps were in place along the storm’s path. In Vermont, when the storm forced evacuation of the state emergency operations center, the workers relocated to a FEMA facility. In North Carolina, FEMA provided in-the-dark local authorities with generator power. And everywhere, FEMA, given new authority by Congress after Katrina, didn’t have to wait for states to request help.

President’s are often evaluated based on the kind of legislation they get through Congress and their handling of foreign affairs. But as I’ve pointed out before, one of the most important aspects of this job is how they manage and lead the various agencies that make up the federal government. The stark contrast between the Bush and Obama administrations is that the former appointed Michael Brown as FEMA director while the latter gave that position to Craig Fugate. I don’t think that it’s an overstatement to say that people’s lives depended on those choices.

Given that Hurricane Matthew is hitting right in the midst of a presidential election, this is a good time to remind ourselves that we are electing the person who will be in charge of managing the federal government and making those kinds of appointments.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.