Wednesday, September 21, 2005

GULFPORT, Miss. — Flood-ravaged New Orleans has dominated press coverage and political debate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, though neighboring Mississippi took the full brunt of the storm’s fury, leaving more than 10,000 residents homeless.

“We’re not into whining or moping around or victimhood,” said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who has avoided the blame game that started in Louisiana as soon as Katrina made landfall.

The Republican governor remains optimistic, insisting that somewhere in the hurricane’s devastation is “an opportunity to build the Gulf Coast back bigger and better than ever before.”

His can-do attitude has drawn praise from, among others, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who compared Mr. Barbour’s post-Katrina leadership to that of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani after the September 11 attacks.

Mr. Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, says he’s not bothered by the comparatively scant national press coverage given to his state’s suffering.

“I would rather [have made] the progress that we’ve made than get a lot of press attention by not making progress, so it doesn’t bother me that we’re not on the front page of the news,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times.

Though he describes his job dealing with the hurricane’s aftermath in Mississippi as “a little bit like getting a drink of water out of a fire hydrant,” Mr. Barbour says he’s not complaining.

“I’m a heck of a lot better off than the people [on the coast] that don’t have homes, that can’t take a shower, that have to rely on somebody to bring them a meal,” he said. “If they can deal with it, I can deal with it.”

But while some observers say his leadership in Katrina’s aftermath have made him a possible White House contender for 2008, Mr. Barbour, 57, insists politics is the last thing on his mind.

“I’m not focused or particularly interested in the politics of it, which is one reason I have disdained all the people who want to point fingers and play the blame game,” he said.

“We’ll have the opportunity to improve many areas of South Mississippi that were severely damaged and that puts a responsibility on me that makes this more than a full-time job, which is why I’m not very interested in politics, even re-election politics.”

While neighboring Louisiana under Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco continues to be entangled in post-Katrina political wrangling, Mississippi appears on a faster track to recovery — partly due to Mr. Barbour’s experience as a high-powered Washington dealmaker.

Mr. Barbour, who left here last night for a week-long trip to Washington, has been working closely on a federal aid proposal with Mississippi Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, both of whom are also Republicans and close to the Bush administration.

“Our staffs have been working together to develop the right package that’s consistent with good policy for the country and that would meet our needs,” he said.

President Bush yesterday made Gulfport the first stop on his fifth tour of the region, appearing with Mr. Barbour in a makeshift tent to inaugurate the governor’s “Commission on Rebuilding, Recovery and Renewal,” headed by former Netscape CEO James Barksdale.

Mississippi’s recovery will be driven private investors sinking cash into the crushed ports and coastal cities, Mr. Barbour said. “Twenty years from now, how we rebuild is going to be determined by the private sector.”

But some Mississippi residents have called the state and federal recovery efforts too slow and disorganized. Last week, the state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against five major insurance companies, saying they tried to trick thousands of homeowners out of insurance claims.

Mr. Barbour is taking the bumps in stride. He appeared nonchalant at a press conference Monday in Jackson, the state capital. Flanked by emergency managers, he wore a short-sleeved shirt with no tie and joked with reporters.

Asked how the state is preparing for the possibility of being hit in coming days by Hurricane Rita, he said flatly: “We’re praying a lot, and we hope that the same hand that put Katrina right into the coast will put Rita somewhere else.”

Afterward, Mr. Barbour acknowledged the stress of dealing with the disaster.

“Sure I get tired,” he said. “I’m just human, but I’ll tell you what, when you see people who were poor before the storm and who have lost what little they ever had and they’re helping their neighbors, it gives you energy.”

He said he spends time praying and that “people pray for us and we need it and appreciate it, and they don’t make any mulls about it. The Supreme Court ain’t outlawed that yet.”

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