As Hurricane Isaac Approaches, Will a Natural Disaster Again Turn Into a PR Disaster?

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and surrounding areas, tropical storm Isaac is poised to hit the city tonight, August 28, just as the Republication National Convention gets fully underway in Tampa, Fla.

One Republican stalwart who won’t be there: Governor Bobby Jindal, who begged off an appearance in Tampa as Isaac took shape. Jindal’s move to stay among his constituency is one example of a PR move based on the experience of Hurricane Katrina, as extreme caution and preparedness now rule the day.

Jindal's decision is in stark contrast to what occurred on the political front at the time of Katrina.

If you will recall, the natural disaster of Katrina was compounded by a lack of preparedness and a series of public relations and communications blunders by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. The two were blindsided by the devastation caused by the hurricane and were never able to recover.

Fast forward to Isaac: At 5 a.m. this morning Isaac was still considered a tropical storm, but was expected by the National Hurricane Center to become a Category 1 hurricane (with winds of at least 74 mph) later today.

The unpredictable nature of a hurricane could breed paralysis in a city inexperienced with natural disasters. But this time around in The Big Easy,  such paralysis is unlikely to occur.

Both Governor Jindal and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu sound confident in touting the area’s new flood-control system that cost billions of dollars to construct, yet some sections around New Orleans are not protected by the new levees. That’s where the message of personal safety and responsibility really comes in.

"There’s a great deal of confidence based on knowledge, and not hubris,” says John Deveney, owner of Deveney Communication, a PR agency based in New Orleans. "The overriding message is be prepared, be responsible and take care of your loved ones. The city and state have done an excellent job in providing directions and resources for citizens.”

Devaney practices what he preaches. He says his agency is in “great shape” to ride out Isaac. Given its crisis communications pedigree, it is no surprise that the agency has put into place a “hurricane protocol” that includes regular conference calls with the entire team. “Everyone is online and working,” says Deveney, who adds, “With Katrina, we didn’t miss a half an hour of work.”

Spoken like a true agency leader.

Follow Scott Van Camp;