Charles Thompson and Jan Murphy
Gov. Tom Corbett demonstrated calm before the storms.
In the face of massive flooding from Tropical Storm Lee, coming just a week after Hurricane Irene caused widespread damage to the Keystone State, Corbett consistently struck a measured, reassuring tone.
Corbett being Corbett, there weren’t a lot of style points.
He offered no bold statements similar to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s blunt message to those lingering along the Jersey shore as Hurricane Irene crept up the coast: “Get the hell off the beach.” Christie gained national attention again, reinforcing his image as a dynamic leader.
Contrast that with Corbett’s demeanor during a televised news conference as the Susquehanna River was still rising, and after swollen creeks flooded communities throughout the midstate.
“This is not a time to panic,” Corbett said sternly. “This is a time to prepare.”
The flooding and Irene have offered Corbett’s biggest and most visible leadership tests to the public since becoming governor in January.
And while Corbett didn’t offer any memorable catchphrases, the consensus is he passed the leadership test.
He seemed prepared and focused. He never seemed overwhelmed.
“When I first turned on the news and saw the governor was on there, I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be bad,’” said Duane Hagelsgan, a veteran fire chief and instructor at Millersville University’s Center for Disaster Research and Education.
But Hagelsgan said he was generally impressed with how Corbett spoke to the public.
“The reality was, it wasn’t fluff,” Hagelsgan said. “It was just good, solid information. From someone who has done this for 30 years, I’ve seen some of these press conferences where a politician steps up there because they are a politician. He was not there for that purpose. He was truly there to give out good information.”
“Would I say everything went perfectly? No, it never does, of course, but he seemed like he certainly had his ducks in a row.”
‘AN AUTHORITATIVE PRESENCE’
Corbett lived his credo that public safety is priority No. 1.
“You can’t stop a flood,” Corbett said at one point. “You can only react to them. You got to get used to it. You react, and you react as best as you can and hopefully we keep loss of life to a minimum.”
Twelve deaths were attributed statewide to the flooding from Lee. Tropical Storm Agnes, by comparison, claimed 48 in 1972.
The governor canceled almost all other business during the flood. He was ever-present at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency headquarters. He immersed himself in the details of the flood response, but he seemingly remained content to let the chain of command work its course.
And, he kept persistently on message in a way that emergency responders appreciated, from imploring parents to keep kids away from floodwater to reminding impatient motorists not to drive through flooded roads.
Mostly, he was himself, and for political and emergency management professionals who watched the governor closely, it worked.
“I thought he was good,” said Larry Ceisler, a political strategist and public relations expert from Philadelphia. “He’s never going to be the guy who has the great off-the-cuff remarks, or the guy who is dripping with empathy. But that’s not him. The one thing he does have is an authoritative presence, and I thought that projected.”
Nobody ever wants a natural disaster to occur on their watch.
But when an event occurs that drowns out the white noise of partisanship that so routinely fills the space of government, a governor gets a chance to cement a leadership image, especially early in the administration.
“These are opportunities for governors to demonstrate leadership … even if it’s just as a source of encouragement,” said John Kennedy, a political science professor at West Chester University.
Gov. Dick Thornburgh’s performance during the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island remains the emergency-response standard for Pennsylvania governors. Only two months into his term, Thornburgh earned respect for calming fears during the nation’s worst nuclear accident.
At the opposite end of the scale, former Gov. Ed Rendell endured withering criticism for his tone-deaf failure to visit Campbelltown after a tornado swept through a neighborhood.
Corbett scored closer to Thornburgh.
When it comes to disaster management, “You always want to see strong leadership, and you want to see early strong leadership,” Hagelsgan said. And Corbett deserved credit for showing leadership, he said.
Former Gov. Mark Schweiker gained wide acclaim during the 2002 accident that trapped nine miners, who were all eventually rescued. When the last man was pulled up from Quecreek Mine, Schweiker famously exulted, “Nine for nine!”
Schweiker offered high praise for the Corbett administration in its response to the storms.
Corbett wisely deployed the National Guard before the hurricane and in advance of the flooding, Schweiker said. And his administrationg was quick to ask the federal government for disaster assistance.
Just as impressive to Schweiker was the administration’s recent acts like extending the tax filing deadline for those whose financial records were destroyed in the flood or offering driver’s license replacements for free.
“Maybe the world doesn’t pay attention to that, but I see that as wonderful examples of sensitivity on the part of the administration,” Schweiker said.
“It truly brings you up short and is heartbreaking when you go through homes and come across an elderly couple who literally lost everything,” Schweiker said. “Family albums are irretrievable. Walls are going to collapse. Their life is upside down. So prompt supportive reactions go a long way.”
Corbett made clear in Lee’s early going that he had little interest in physically surveying the state until after it was clear there would be no chance that air resources would be needed for emergency rescues.
He did quickly tour Philadelphia after Irene, and he toured northeastern Pennsylvania to see the damage from Lee’s flooding.
Hagelsgan applauded the governor for not rushing out to do photo opportunities by floodwaters, potentially distracting emergency responders from their work.
At one point, Corbett even chided the media for encouraging people to send in photos of the flooding and swollen rivers. “Knock it off! You’re putting them in harm’s way,” he said.
Corbett also got high points from local elected officials for his leadership and accessibility.
Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson rated Corbett’s performance as “superb” in an emailed response to questions about the level of state assistance during the flooding.
Thompson conceded that she does not have the personal bond with the Republican governor that she shared with Rendell, a fellow Democrat. But she credited Corbett and PEMA staff with “providing critical support to the mayor and her emergency operations team throughout the current emergency.”
It wasn’t perfect.
Some observers thought Corbett was a little slow in sounding the alarm in response to Hurricane Irene as it made its way up the East Coast.
While Christie was telling people on New Jersey’s barrier islands and shore areas to head to higher grounds on Aug. 25, it wasn’t until three days later that Corbett had his first news conference on the approaching storm.
Is Corbett sometimes too accepting?
On Sept. 1, five days after Irene, about 25,000 Pennsylvanians remained without electricity. About 750,000 people lost power at the storm’s height, so utility companies clearly faced a massive task.
“I want to commend the electric companies for doing everything they can to be prepared, and then to react to the loss of electricity,” Corbett said. He added, “I know it’s difficult on the people who are still suffering that loss.”
By contrast, New Jersey’s governor publicly vented his irritation at the slow pace of restoring electricity, particularly by one company. On Sept. 2, with about 27,000 in New Jersey still without power, Christie said he wanted public hearings on the companies’ response. About 1.5 million Garden State residents lost power at the storm’s height.
Still, most experts said they liked Corbett’s relentless focus on preparation, response and recovery as the governor put an exclamation point on the opening of Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery centers.
There may be some lasting benefits from this exercise.
Ceisler said Corbett’s post-Irene tour of Philadelphia meant something to people in that heavily Democratic city who thus far have primarily viewed him as “the guy who cut all kinds of services here without coming here to explain why. Now, he starts to become a person to them again.”
But it’s not likely to change long-term political dynamics on tough issues like education spending or cuts in social services.
“I think at best there’s a small amount of good will and it enables him to have the discussion about where he’s coming from on some of these issues,” Ceisler said. “But it doesn’t win people over.”