Forecasters were near certain that Hurricane Harvey would be the most devastating storm to hit the continental US since Hurricane Katrina 12 years earlier.
But even they could not have foreseen the level of rainfall that would blanket areas of southeast Texas — particularly around Houston. With rains in some areas exceeding 50 inches and flooding that put entire neighbourhoods virtually underwater, the disaster will go down as one of the costliest in American history.
More than 40 people have been found dead as a result of the initial hurricane and subsequent flooding. At least 33,000 Texans are now spread throughout more than 230 shelters. Roughly 20,000 homes were damaged, and hundreds of thousands will, in all likelihood, seek disaster assistance of some kind.
For President Donald Trump, this disaster was the first “serious” crisis early in his administration, as conservative news aggregator Matt Drudge wrote ahead of the storm’s landing last week. It was a major question for the young administration: How would Trump and his officials respond to and handle Hurricane Harvey?
A week after Harvey’s destruction began, Trump and his team have generally received high remarks for their response.
“I would think the absence of real criticism from elected officials at all levels is a sign that they have done very, very well,” Matt Mackowiak, an Austin, Texas based Republican strategist and president of the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider.
But as experts said, while Trump’s first week as chief executive leading the federal government’s Harvey response went as well as they had hoped for, the true test of any disaster response is not if it’s going well in week one, but if it’s still getting high marks months and years down the road. In Texas, where flooding has put entire sections of Houston underwater, that recovery effort already looks as if it will take years and cost billions.
In his first week of managing the crisis, Trump was engaged in ways seldom seen during his presidency. As The New York Times reported earlier this week, he was “more engaged in the details” of the Harvey response than he has been in any other issue, “fascinated,” as one aide told the publication, “by the long-term effect of water damage on structures in the Gulf Coast, peppering FEMA and National Security Council briefers with detailed questions about the flooding in Houston and Galveston.”
Trump spent much of the week tweeting and speaking publicly about the hurricane, promising that his administration would not be forgetting about those affected by it.
He visited Corpus Christi, Texas, a city hit by the storm but nowhere near as bad off as the Houston area, earlier in the week, and he plans to return to the state on Saturday. And a number of top administration officials — from Vice President Mike Pence, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long — have all made appearances in the Lone Star state this week, signalling the administration’s focus on the episode.
During his Corpus Christi visit, Trump said “we want to do” the response to Harvey “better than ever before.”
“We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now, as this is the way to do it,” Trump said. “This was of epic proportion. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this, and I just want to say that working with [Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott] and his entire team has been an honour for us.”
Still, the week was not clean of controversy injected by Trump. Last Friday night, right as the hurricane was slamming into Texas, Trump decided to announce his pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which Trump later said he did because he “assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”
“Well a lot of people said it was the right thing to do, John,” Trump told Fox News reporter John Roberts during a Monday press conference at the White House. “And actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally. You know, the hurricane was just starting. And I put it out that we pardoned, as we say, Sheriff Joe.”
And after his meeting with federal, state, and local leaders in a Corpus Christi fire station, Trump addressed a large crowd that had gathered outside, saying, “what a crowd, what a turnout.” He added that the storm was “historic, it’s epic, but I can tell you it happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything.”
Some bristled at the display. Politico’s Josh Dawsey noted that the trip didn’t include Trump meeting with “a single storm victim,” seeing “an inch of rain or” getting “near a flooded street.” But, the Politico reporter wrote that the trip “gave the optics-obsessed president some of the visuals he wanted.” And pool reporter David McSwane wrote suspiciously of the hundreds of Trump supporters who appeared seemingly out of nowhere to greet the president at the fire station, where Trump waved the Lone Star flag and mentioned the crowd size and turnout.
“The turnout of hundreds of Trump supporters is notable because few knew where Trump was actually going,” he tweeted. “Someone organised that.”
But Keli Perrin, a Syracuse University law professor whose expertise is in critical infrastructure and emergency response, told Business Insider that she thought Trump was “actually on script” in his responses.
“He does throw in some stuff like crowd counts or this is going to be the best response ever, because that’s what he does,” she said. “That’s his persona. But for the most part, if you watch his full clips, he’s saying the right stuff.”
Mackowiak said he “probably wouldn’t” have issued the pardon at the time Trump did, but he praised both Trump and the administration for their initial handling of the disaster.
“He is who he is,” Mackowiak said. “There’s a limit to sort of what he’s capable of doing.”
“Are you going to see him, you know, as the emoter in chief hugging hundreds and hundreds of people? That’s not really what he does,” he added. “He might do that tomorrow in Houston, and I think it’d be a very good thing if he did. I think he sees his role more as an executive role, talking to his cabinet, talking to state officials, making sure that the right things are happening.”
Mackowiak said Trump was “solving problems” and “motivating people to get moving.”
“My guess is he is working the phones much more aggressively than anyone realises,” he said. “I mean, he kind of does that in his day-to-day life anyway. So, my sense is he’s been more engaged than people realise. Has he done it exactly as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Barack Obama would have done it? No, because he’s a different person. So, again, he’s unique in how he’s gone about it.”
Speaking of Bush, it’s clear that a focus on Trump’s mind is not having his administration look like that of the prior Republican president when it comes to its response to a major hurricane. For Bush, his administration’s response to Katrina was a low point of his presidency.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa called out Trump on Twitter to “keep on top of” the hurricane and warned him not to “make the same mistake Pres Bush made w Katrina.”
“Got your message loud and clear,” Trump responded. “We have fantastic people on the ground, got there long before #Harvey. So far, so good!”
Long, Duke, and others have so far made a name for themselves in helping to lead the federal response to the storm. As Duke told reporters aboard Air Force Two on a flight to Texas this week, more than 21,000 federal workers are or were being mobilized for the response effort. During Trump’s visit to Corpus Christi, Long tried to temper expectations, noting that “recovery is a slow process but rest assured we’re doing everything we can.”
“All eyes are on Houston, and so are mine,” he added. “We’ve got a long time to go. We’re still in a life saving, life sustaining mission.”
He too made a comparison to Katrina.
“This is not the Superdome,” he said of the evacuation shelters set up in other Texas counties, comparing it to the New Orleans stadium that was overfilled with people seeking shelter. “This recovery is going to be frustrating. We’re going to be here to navigate you through it.”
Perrin, who said she’s a “real fan of Administrator Long,” said the administration is doing a good job of both “managing expectations” and not making similar mistakes made by the Bush administration.
“Of course, the Trump administration is trying not to look like the Bush administration,” she said. “They’re showing up, [Trump] was there, he was doing what he was supposed to do. Corpus Christi instead of Houston, he was close but out of the way. It’s almost like they read what went wrong in Katrina and fixed it.”
What comes next for Trump is the push to get federal funding for the recovery and pass both an emergency package as soon as possible, with a more substantial one in the coming months.
Already, the White House is pushing for $US7.85 billion for an initial emergency funding request for Harvey aid as of Friday night, nearly $US2 billion more than the Trump administration estimated it would call for earlier in the day.
This is where the federal government will play its biggest role.
Once the disaster “passes,” as Mackowiak said, the response goes from being in the court of state and local officials to being much more of a shared responsibility. And, he said “it’s going to be up to the feds now to execute during the rebuilding phase.”
That’s going to mean passing those large aid packages, which Mackowiak said will rival or surpass what was provided after Katrina. While much of that burden is on Congress’ shoulders, Mackowiak said Trump will need to get the package moving and thwart anything that could “threaten” the funding.
“This is an enormous challenge, but so far the feds have done well,” he said. “But the question is where does it go from here.”
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