Column: The Governors Who Cried Quarantine

In 2005, Hurricane Ivan was a Category 5 storm headed for New Orleans. “Mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of emergency and strongly recommended that residents evacuate immediately,” reported at the time. Roughly half—600,000—residents left; the majority stayed. The storm passed. New Orleans was unscathed.

Elected officials had sounded the alarm, like they were obligated to, just like they had done for the last 40 years when any storm was barreling down. To those living on the Gulf Coast at the time, Ivan passing with little gusto filled them with a degree of cynicism. A sense of confidence in their ability to weather, well, any weather. Every time there was a storm in the gulf, elected officials told everyone to leave immediately. And then nothing happened. The people who left felt like they’d overreacted, the people who stayed felt vindicated. Most thought they’d listen to their mayor less next time.

For New Orleans, the next time was a year later. This time, they said, it was serious. The real deal. Everyone must leave. No matter what they had said before, this time was the time you should really listen to them. Most did. Some hesitated. Over a hundred thousand stayed. Nearly 2,000 died.

The failure of leadership during Hurricane Katrina was vast and widespread, but it started way before the storm. It started with leaders erring on the side of hysteria coupled with the disaster-porn fetish of 24-hour cable news.

False alarms breed false confidence.

In contrast, in 2011, when Hurricane Irene made landfall and the following year, Sandy sruck the largest city in the country, New York, the disaster response was relatively smooth. The storms were bad, but the response was decent, due largely to the lack of “this is gonna be the big one” fatigue.

Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie got high marks for their reactions. Christie emoted on the Jersey shore with victims of the storm. He stood shoulder to shoulder with President Obama and told the nation New Jersey is “stronger than the storm.” (He’s also under federal investigation for using federal relief funds to make what appeared to be campaign commercials featuring his Sandy response. Another issue for another time.) Cuomo (also under federal investigation) had a press conference and said hauntingly that we have 100-year floods every two years now. He vowed the city would come back quickly.

Strong, stoic, reactive, Hurricane Sandy seemed to bring out the best in these two governors. The storm could be a nice feather in each of their hats when they inevitably run for president in 2016.

And then came Ebola, a virus which has ravaged countries in Africa, killing one person who traveled to Texas, and infecting two more here in America. A disease which has managed to terrify millions, aided by media saturation focusing on every fever with added fervor.

Cuomo and Christie set out to outdo themselves—one-up their greatest hit of Hurricane Sandy. Call it: Mandatory Quarantine.

Both Christie and Cuomo decided to implement an order to involuntarily isolate health-care workers—not who are sick, but who have worked with Ebola patients overseas. Only Christie actually had a citizen detained. Kaci Hickox, a nurse returning from Sierra Leone, was quarantined in Newark by this unthinking, unscientific, over-zealous policy. Then a stunningly bellicose and tone-deaf Christie responded Sunday on Fox News thusly: “The government’s job is to protect [the] safety and health of our citizens. And so we’ve taken this action, and I absolutely have no second thoughts about it.” Later he challenged the health care worker to “get in line to sue him” after he did have second thoughts and changed his mind.

This is not how you deal with a health crisis. This is how you lose all credibility on how you handle a health crisis.

This is how people finally tune out your bluster, governors.


Photo by Jason Scragz