Inside Report: Sinkhole critics: O, Governor, where art thou?

By David J. Mitchell

River Parishes bureau

For months now, a vocal group of activists and residents has found fault with Gov. Bobby Jindal over his absence from the scene of the Bayou Corne sinkhole.

Why, they ask, has he not made the commonly seen leadership visit to a disaster area that, while brief, boosts morale and provides hope?

Sinkhole activist John Achee Jr., a regular critic of Jindal and state government’s handling of the sinkhole and salt dome regulation, leveled this complaint again during a Feb. 19 joint hearing of the House and Senate committees on Natural Resources.

He called Jindal’s absence “disheartening” and “very concerning.”

“This to me is unacceptable and cannot or should not be tolerated,” said Achee, a polarizing figure himself over his criticisms of Jindal and state and parish government.

In response, Jindal’s press office provided its answer, quoting the governor as saying he receives regular updates and that state agencies have put out abundant resources in response to the sinkhole under his orders.

No matter how many times your subordinates send them, though, news releases will never be the same as a handshake, a pat on the back and encouraging words directly from the governor.

This perceived inattention has given Jindal’s critics a useful symbol for the way, they say, state government has inadequately responded to the Assumption Parish disaster and regulated salt dome operators.

The absence has also fit neatly into the narrative of an insulated governor with eyes on Washington 2016 and not Louisiana 2013.

But these complaints, it seems, could be neutralized for most with one helicopter ride to the command post in Bayou Corne.

So why not?

Jindal’s press office did not respond to requests for comment.

Kirby Goidel, LSU mass communication and political science professor, said the window for Jindal to gain the positive boost he could have expected from an early visit to Bayou Corne has long passed.

Any visit now would likely be greeted with criticism that he arrived too late. At the same time, if Jindal stays away, he will continue to be criticized for not going.

“He is in a difficult spot now,” said Goidel, who also directs the LSU Manship School’s Research Facility.

Goidel said if he were advising Jindal, he would suggest the governor go anyway just to take the issue off the table.

There is a danger, though, Goidel noted.

After early criticism over the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush made a dramatic speech from Jackson Square in New Orleans, initially creating a powerful symbol of renewed federal commitment.

As the recovery lingered, images of Bush speaking from that city’s ancient but powerless heart under generator-powered lights became an ironic critique of the response and of Bush.

“At end of the day, people judge on sort of the policy and whether it is a benefit or not, and if you come into a Katrina-type situation and you have the lights and have the cameras and say you’re concerned, and you disappear, then people remember that,” Goidel said. “I think it’s got to be both the image, plus the follow-up.”

Resolution of the Bayou Corne situation appears at least months away, but legislators are discussing new regulations for salt dome operators. The Louisiana Office of Conservation is proposing its own revamp on salt dome rules.

Jindal has an opportunity to flex his muscle on these efforts and have a helicopter ride to the bayou worth making.

David J. Mitchell has been covering the Assumption Parish sinkhole for The Advocate. He can be reached at dmitchell@theadvocate.com.