In general, I think presidents get too much of the credit and the blame for disaster response. Much of any response will be handled by state and local governments, which vary in their efficacy. There is also a federal bureaucracy with strengths and weaknesses that predate any president’s administration.
And there is a heavy element of luck: Moving a storm track a few dozen miles can mean the difference between a regular hurricane and one that floods New Orleans for weeks.
But one part of the disaster relief job that falls squarely on a president is showing leadership: Communicating clearly to the public that the government is taking the disaster seriously and marshaling whatever resources are needed to address it. And President Donald Trump has failed at that in the response to Hurricane Maria.
Liberals, including at least one Democratic congresswoman, have started calling Maria “Trump’s Katrina,” and conservatives have started protesting that this is premature and that it ignores the extensive efforts of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which have been praised by the governor of Puerto Rico.
But if the federal response is sufficiently robust, why has the president been so reluctant to tweet about it?
FEMA Director Brock Long tweeted Monday that 10,000 federal government staff are on the ground in Puerto Rico, working on recovery. More people would know that if the president had told them.
Trump has the ability to command the attention of the media and the public, and for the last several days, he has used it — to manufacture a firestorm in the National Football League. Only on Monday evening did he come around to talking about recovery in Puerto Rico, in a bizarre series of tweets that seemed to blame the island for allowing its infrastructure and finances to deteriorate.
At a press conference Tuesday, he distanced himself — literally — from the island, noting that it was “out in the ocean” and that you “can’t just drive your truck there.”
This is an obvious effort by Trump to manage expectations: Recovery from Maria is likely to be much harder and much uglier than it has been with Harvey and Irma, and he wants people to know that’s not his fault.
But there is a truth behind Trump’s tweets and comments that places greater responsibility on him and his administration.
There are a number of reasons this storm is going to pose extra-tough challenges. Its strong winds have produced stunning levels of damage.
As Trump notes, Puerto Rico’s remoteness has created logistical challenges. It’s going to be harder to get the materials and personnel that are needed to restore and rebuild to an island in the Caribbean than to an area of the US mainland. One reason media coverage of the disaster has been less robust than you might hope is the difficulty of broadcasting from an island with no electrical power and severely disabled telecommunications networks.
And, yes, Puerto Rico has economic and financial challenges that predated the storm and that will make recovery harder.
All this means Puerto Rico is going to need more federal help than Texas or Florida, and that the federal government is going to have to take a more robust role than it usually does in response to a disaster. Instead of running away from the challenges he’s identified, he needs to talk clearly about how his administration will take the lead to restore the homes and livelihoods over 3 million US citizens.
It’s good that Trump has announced he will visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday. Maybe he should visit sooner, but presidential visits to disaster zones can pose logistical challenges that interfere with recovery, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he has good reasons to wait until then.
He should also get a disaster relief proposal to Congress quickly. Congress passed the Harvey relief package 12 days after that storm made landfall in Houston. A comparable timeline would have a Maria relief bill passing on October 2, Monday of next week.
It’s not too late for Trump to show he is engaged on this issue, but it is almost too late. Trump’s insistent self-praise about the success of the federal response in Puerto Rico will be received poorly if, as looks likely, the island remains in a dire state for an extended period.
And when Trump shows more interest in culture warrioring than in helping Americans recover from a disaster, he has only himself to blame when people assume he is not doing everything he could to help.
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