Gov. Greg Abbott's predecessor — a soon-to-be presidential candidate named Rick Perry — would call it the no-manual test.
"Nobody gave me the manual," Perry tells audience after audience, ticking off the impromptu leadership tests that came with being the governor of Texas: tackling the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States last year, dealing with the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia over the Lone Star State in 2003 and combatting the most destructive wildfire in state history in 2011.
They are catastrophes that get at the most basic responsibilities of a governor, and five months into his first term, Abbott is facing one of them head-on: the deadly confluence of violent thunderstorms, flash flooding and whipping wind that has uprooted thousands of Texans' lives this month and left at least eight dead in the past few days. As state lawmakers tinker away in their final days under the pink dome, Abbott is peering out of helicopters at flood-ravaged parts of the state, recounting the water's tsunami-like strength at somber news conferences, and overall, trying to tell it like it is to a state that puts a premium on straight-talking governors.
"You cannot candy coat it. It's absolutely massive," Abbott declared Monday after touring the Blanco River, the Central Texas waterway that reached a record level over the weekend.
Abbott, who took office in January, has nonetheless approached the situation with his trademark deliberativeness, perhaps heightened by the fact it is unlike anything he has confronted so far in his short time as governor, aides say. And he has sought to balance the positive news out of the storm — heroic acts by first responders — with the sobering reality that many Texans are still trying to piece their lives back together.
For any governor — let alone one whose stay at the mansion numbers months, not years — the stakes are high.
"Emergency response and how a governor handles a natural or manmade disaster is hugely important to not only the state, but to the governor’s standing," said Ray Sullivan, Perry's chief of staff during the Bastrop wildfire, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. The biggest risks, Sullivan added, are "poor planning, poor coordination and inaction," as well as failing to keep a sufficient profile while distressed citizens search for answers.
To be sure, Abbott's handling of the crisis has not been without some questions, including whether the state was fully prepared for the unrelenting run of inclement weather that began weeks ago. At news conferences throughout the state this week, he has assured reporters Texas was ready and everything worked that was supposed to.
His response began in earnest May 8, when he announced he was ramping up the State Operations Center, a hub of emergency management officials. Then, over the next two and a half weeks, he declared states of disaster in dozens of counties, starting with the area surrounding Van, the East Texas town where a deadly tornado touched down. On Monday and Tuesday, he traveled to Wichita Falls, Wimberley and Houston to survey storm damage by helicopter and discuss recovery efforts with local officials.
At each stop, Abbott has not minced words about the flooding, calling it the worst Texas has ever seen, a wall of water that flattened trees in its path. Yet he has not strayed too far from his cautious instincts, emphasizing the fluidity of the situation in the face of questions about the number of those dead or missing.
The gubernatorial clock has not stopped as Abbott has become more involved in the response. In recent days, more legislative briefings have been added to his schedule to stay on top of what traditionally is crunch time at the Capitol.
And on the same day that Abbott won another victory in his high-profile challenge to President Obama's executive action on immigration, the governor offered an exhibit in the occasionally split-screen politics of running a state that does not always get along with the federal government. Just hours before Abbott issued a statement proclaiming Obama's "attempt to bypass the will of the American people was successfully checked again today," he took a call from the man himself, who offered his condolences to those affected by the flooding and pledged the support of the federal government as Texas rebuilds.
In between stops Tuesday, Abbott dialed into cable news shows, speaking by phone over images of cars floating away and chimneys sticking out from seas of floodwater. On Fox News, he pleaded with Texans to stay out of harm's way. "Don't risk your life," he said, echoing the main message of his news conferences Monday and Tuesday.
The plea took on a more personal tone this week as it became clear the family member of a senior adviser to Abbott, Julie Shields, was among those most seriously affected by the flooding. Shields' sister, Laura McComb, is missing along with her two children after flood wiped away the home they were staying in on the Blanco River.
Shields, a senior policy adviser to Abbott on education, told KXAN over the weekend that she was on the phone with her sister when the flood struck.
“We are floating in a house that is now floating down the river,” McComb said, according to Shields' account. “Call Mom and Dad. I love you, and pray.”
Abbott, who called Shields on Sunday to offer his support, mentioned her situation Tuesday while reflecting on the how some Texans' "dreams and their lives are either completely disrupted or completely washed away."
"It’s more personal than that because family members of one of my employees were swept away in the river flood in Blanco River and have not yet been found," Abbott told reporters in Houston. "This is something that goes to the very heart of my work family."
Abbott's response to the flood also has turned personal in that he has seen firsthand the devastation in cities such as Wichita Falls, his birthplace, and Houston, where he grew up and ultimately launched his political career as a state trial judge.
"I began my life in the Houston area in 1984," Abbott told reporters, drawing parallels between the current devastation and that of Tropical Storm Allison in 1989. "As far as flooding is concerned, this ranks right up there with Allison."
State Rep. Jason Isaac, a Republican who represents flood-ravaged Blanco and Hays counties, said Tuesday evening that it may be early in Abbott's governorship, but so far he is doing a "phenomenal job" rising to the occasion.
"He just seems extremely concerned, not only for the search and rescue, but for the rebuilding and the number of families that have been displaced," said Isaac, who stood beside Abbott at a Wimberley news conference. "It just shows the Texas spirit, that we’re going to help our people in need."
Neena Satija contributed reporting.