JEFFERSON CITY — With floodwaters rising in 1993, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan surveyed swamped towns and farms, declared "the devastation is terrible," and then departed for a vacation in Italy. The next day, torrential rain brought the flood to the capital city. Soon, Carnahan was cutting his vacation short to manage Missouri's biggest natural disaster in decades.
The untimely absence, as even Carnahan acknowledged, was not the ideal way for a chief executive to handle an emergency.
Two decades later, as Missouri has again been smashed by historic floods and tornadoes, Gov. Jay Nixon has been an ubiquitous commander of disasters. He's been on the ground quickly to survey damage and assure residents of forthcoming aid. He's intervened when local response efforts bogged down. And he's returned again and again to disaster scenes — particularly to the tornado-struck city of Joplin — to guide the state's response and recovery efforts.
There has been no vacation for the Democratic governor during the past two months.
"The governor has been very responsive. I have no complaints," said Rep. Bill White, a Joplin Republican who rode out the tornado while clutching his wife and daughter on the kitchen floor of an IHOP restaurant.
Disaster management can be a high-stakes situation for chief executives. President George W. Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco took big political hits for their perceived poor response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Blanco chose not to seek re-election. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, by contrast, was generally regarded as in control of his state's Katrina recovery. He cruised to re-election and was mentioned as a potential presidential candidate before deciding earlier this year that he would not run.
Nixon's approach to disaster response was on display earlier this year when he backed fellow Democrat Attorney General Chris Koster as the state appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a futile effort to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from blowing a hole in a Mississippi River levee and flooding 130,000 acres of fertile Missouri farmland to relieve flooding pressure on nearby Cairo, Ill.
Then, less than 24 hours after the corps-induced flood, Nixon was flying over the flood zone in a Blackhawk helicopter and holding public meetings with officials in southeast Missouri. Just 10 days earlier, Nixon had scrambled to the scene after an April 22 tornado struck St. Louis. And when the nation's deadliest single tornado in six decades devastated Joplin on May 22, Nixon virtually set up office in the town.
Nixon was in Joplin every day for the ensuing week and traveled to the city on two-thirds of the days in the first three weeks after the tornado, according to records of Nixon's schedule obtained by The Associated Press. During that time, Nixonwas also on the scene following a tornado in the central Missouri city of Sedalia and traveled to northwest Missouri to inspect preparations for an impending flood on the Missouri River.
As he focused on disasters, Nixon delayed signing legislation and postponed fundraisers for his 2012 re-election campaign that had been scheduled in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield. His likely Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, has had little official role in Missouri's disaster responses.
Nixon's leadership also is on full display at the state Resource, Recovery & Rebuilding Center in Joplin — a newly rented office space where representatives of state agencies dispense aid and advice. A framed photo at the customer service desk shows a concerned President Barack Obama embracing the governor at a memorial service one week after the deadly tornado. A second photo on the wall shows Nixon and Obama walking through the destruction.
Fred Coombes, 62, visited the resource center after his insurance company said it could only pay $70,000 to replace a destroyed home valued at $94,000. After state staff intervened, Coombes got a larger settlement. A retired explosives engineer and Democrat who once ran unsuccessfully for the state House, Coombes said Nixon has earned widespread respect in a city that is politically conservative and votes staunchly Republican.
"He's been terrific," Coombes said. "It makes people feel better, knowing that he's interested in our hardship."
But Nixon's emergency management hasn't been flawless. On the night of Joplin tornado, the governor's office referred reporters to local officials for information about damage, injuries and deaths while downed phone lines and cell phone towers made communications difficult. City officials continued to take the lead on rescue and response efforts for the first couple days, and as the missing persons list grew and unidentified bodies accumulated in makeshift morgues, public worries and frustrations mounted. Nixon eventually intervened, putting the state Highway Patrol in charge of accounting for the missing and making the state the information source for the death toll. Within days, all the missing were confirmed as either safe, injured or dead.
"As governor, if you are on the ground, it gives you a better context" to make such decisions, Nixon said.
Although he generally praises Nixon's effort, Missouri Southern State University political science professor Will Delehanty said the early organization could have been better.
"Local officials were overwhelmed — that was clear," said Delehanty, who survived the tornado while crouched on the bathroom floor of his apartment. "I think there was a lack of coordination with the state on one hand and city officials in Joplin trying to assess the damage, trying to figure out how do we systematically move through the area affected by the tornado."
Nixon has pledged $50 million in state aid for the Joplin tornado and southeast Missouri flooding. But because that wasn't included in the budget, Nixon has had to cut funding for education and other government services.
Some residents in disaster areas are waiting for that money to start flowing in practical ways.
When the Army Corps blew up the Birds Point levee along the Mississippi River, the force of the explosion broke out windows several miles away in the small town of Wyatt. Mayor Mitch Pullen said he met with the governor immediately afterward, and generally was impressed by the state's response.
"He told me he was going to make sure those windows and things would be fixed," Pullen said. "We'll see what happens. It's been a while, but I know how it works. I don't guess anything happens overnight."
Associated Press writers Alan Scher Zagier in Joplin and Jim Salter in Kansas City contributed to this report.