Obama has put lessons from Katrina to use, and some partisans have shown that they can unite in tragedy.
(The Root) -- The winds of change have come from an unlikely source. Near the end of a bitterly contested presidential election, Hurricane Sandy has offered a rare opportunity for bipartisan agreement and national unity. But it comes at a high cost.
The sound and fury brings with it a death toll of more than 50 along the East Coast and 69 in the Caribbean. Twenty-two percent of New York City remains in the dark, 90 percent of Long Island residents are without power and New Jersey has experienced damage that Republican Gov. Chris Christie called "unthinkable."
The Category 1 storm left scenes more akin to a postapocalyptic Hollywood film than the modern-day United States. New York subways are underwater; in Breezy Point, Queens, more than 111 homes were burned to the ground. The New York Stock Exchange -- a center of global finance -- was closed for two days in a row, something that has not occurred since 1888. Trees fell and took power lines down with them, crushing cars and sparking fires from North Carolina to New Jersey. One of the deaths reported in Manhattan was of a brave police officer trying to save his family; a teenage girl in Staten Island drowned when a wave crashed into her home.
It all sounds too familiar, recalling images from 2005 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in which the largely African-American city of New Orleans was ravaged when its levees broke under the weight of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city, plus coastal towns from Alabama to Mississippi, and left more than1,800 dead and millions displaced.
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was wholly unprepared. George W. Bush's crony appointee, Michael Brown, encouraged state officials not to act for fear of interfering with state response teams. Bush paid a crippling political price and was blamed for being inept, ineffective and insensitive. Brown was forced to resign but seems still not to have learned his lesson -- going so far as to criticize President Obama for responding to Hurricane Sandy too soon.
So what has changed?
Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy are different storms that affected different areas of the country -- but the government response and loss of life have been different as well. Seven years after Katrina, Christie began evacuating the Jersey Shore days ahead of the storm, Newark Mayor Cory Booker was responding to citizen requests via social media outlets and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office coordinated with city hospitals to provide cover for patients.
"The federal government's response has been great," Christie told NBC's Today show. "I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president, personally. He has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area. The president has been outstanding in this, and so have the folks at FEMA."
Christie gave what could have been interpreted as a near-endorsement of Democratic President Obama -- were he not a top surrogate for the Romney campaign -- offering nothing but praise for his leadership and commitment. But it certainly was a rare rise above the political fray, silencing the partisan chattering classes and refocusing public attention on important issues, like saving American lives. The controversial governor is widely known for speaking his mind, and so there's always a ring of authenticity to him.
Despite this short-lived calm at the eye of the storm, the body politic remained in motion. Mitt Romney officially suspended campaign activities for two days but participated in a supposed "relief effort" to benefit the American Red Cross and raise money for victims of the hurricane. Though he claimed it wasn't political, the event was held in Ohio -- the one state without which no Republican candidate has ever managed to win the White House.
Democratic pundits expressed concern that the storm, which was downgraded to a cyclone, would wreak havoc on the key states of Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania -- all of which had been safely in Obama's column but remain within the statistical margin of error. Voter turnout could be affected as winter storms meet Sandy's violent wind gusts.
Like Christie, who told Fox News, "If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, you don't know me," President Obama appeared more concerned with the damage done by Sandy than he did about next Tuesday's electoral matchup. Obama canceled a third straight day of campaigning, having already scratched an event in Florida on Monday and now another on Wednesday in the swing state of Ohio.
Instead he's slated to visit New Jersey, where Sandy made landfall. The meeting with Christie is more than a photo op and allows the president to direct necessary resources to the worst-affected areas.
The Obama administration's well-organized, well-executed response is a sign that lessons were learned from the Katrina debacle. This October surprise -- a term used in American political parlance to describe a game-changing news event that influences the November election -- appears to be favoring the incumbent. Four days after Katrina, nearly 80,000 people were still trapped in New Orleans without food, power or sanitation. And though Katrina was a strong Category 4 storm, the Category 1 Sandy was much larger -- spanning more than 1,000 miles across -- cutting power lines in 17 states.
The natural disaster presents a particularly complicated challenge to former Gov. Romney's campaign, which will undoubtedly be forced to explain his call for cuts in FEMA's federal budget during the Republican primary debates (when he described the agency as "immoral").
All politics are local, and in the post-Katrina era all major storms have become political. It appears that President Obama is riding the wave and Romney will try to break it.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.