When Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast in the final days of August it set a new record for rain in the continental United States, ravaging the city of Houston with floodwater. Just over a week later Hurricane Irma touched down in Florida after it had torn through the Caribbean islands. Even before the most recent disaster, when Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico devastated, all eyes were on President Trump to see how he would respond to some of the worst storms in recent American history. With lives, homes, and businesses at risk, mounting an appropriate response ranks among the biggest challenges of Trump’s presidency so far.
The unprecedented scale of Harvey invited comparison with how George W. Bush reacted to Hurricane Katrina. His poor response to Katrina left the president who had handled 9/11 so deftly facing scathing criticism and remains a scar on his presidency. The chaotic tone of the early Trump presidency bred concerns about how it would meet the logistical and communications challenges of not one, but three major disasters.
While federal resources are often deployed to support local and state governments in crises, the role of the president is as much to provide compassionate leadership for victims and the country at large. While the practical challenges of Katrina were different to the ones posed today, President Trump’s speeches and tweets show an awareness of the lessons of 2005, while also skirting close to dangerous pitfalls.
Katrina notoriously caught Bush unaware, with the former-president 27 days into a holiday at his ranch when the hurricane hit. The administration was seen as slow off the mark as a result, and an image of President Bush gazing at the devastation from Air Force One produced an indelible impression of distance and helplessness. A delay in visiting affected areas, despite a laudable desire not to complicate relief efforts, suggested presidential indifference. Praising the head of the disaster management agency for doing “a heck of a job” amid mounting crisis was one more misstep at the end of a path full of them.
Any tweet in a storm
Contrast this with Trump, who was tweeting ahead of each major hurricane, and gushing forth a stream of social media posts throughout. However excitable, it demonstrated awareness of the situation, as did his determination to visit affected areas of Texas swiftly.
Despite this, whether in an attempt to appear on top of the situation or due to a fondness for hyperbole, Trump has rarely struck the compassionate note the occasion demands. Whether focusing on the size (again), seizing any opportunity to criticise his predecessor (however inaccurately) or informing media that Puerto Rico is in “a thing called the Atlantic Ocean… tough stuff,” President Trump seems unable to shake off the bombast and bluff of the campaign trail to assume the mantle of leadership.
The age of social media
The emergence of social media is an obvious differential between these two presidencies, especially considering Trump’s infamous enthusiasm for it. Sites like Twitter offer a fantastic platform from which to disseminate information to a wide audience, and Trump had the opportunity to use it to advise those in danger on how to protect themselves, and to inform others how they can offer help. Some of the tweets of former-President Obama offer a perfect example of how social media can be used to share important information in the face of a disaster while also acting as a source of compassion and support.
However, Trump has failed to do this, with exclamation mark riddled tweets that do more to rubberneck than support. He may have fallen into the trap of declaring success too early in the relief effort: his praise for FEMA Director Brock Long echo the words uttered by Bush to Michael Brown, then-FEMA chief who later resigned in disgrace following Katrina.
The whole episode reminds us that while it is important to act quickly in the face of a crisis, having the appropriate response is equally important. Trump will undoubtedly continue to be tested by events both at home and abroad as his presidency. In making the most of the opportunities provided by modern communication methods, he should learn from his predecessors’ mistakes if he wants to win the affirmation he seems to crave.
Don’t speak too soon
Immediately following publication of this blog, remarks by President Trump concerning Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, demonstrated a commitment to unearthing new ways not to communicate in a crisis.
There is often a danger in politics that one interprets the actions of others (often those one disagrees with) as part of a sophisticated strategy, executed with the intent of achieving a wider goal. While it would be wrong to suggest the above post necessarily violates Hanlon’s Razor, President Trump’s criticism of a politician in the midst of dealing with a catastrophic storm, followed by a visit to Puerto Rico that was used almost exclusively for political promotion, lends credence to the idea that he is uninterested in the compassionate rhetoric and tone of traditional crisis leadership.