Trump has to rely on the 'swamp' for Hurricane Harvey response

Story highlights

  • Juliette Kayyem: With hurricane,Trump will be judged on how well he lets bureaucracy he maligns as 'the swamp' actually do its job
  • Kayyem: His budget proposals have sought FEMA cuts. If things go poorly he won't be able to tweet against Mother Nature

CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-seller, "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home." She is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, host of the national security podcast, "The SCIF," and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Hurricane Harvey is destined to be the first major homeland security and emergency management crisis the Trump administration has faced. And, ironically, it is at this moment that President Donald Trump will be judged on how well he lets a bureaucracy he so often maligns or denigrates actually do its job.

By all accounts, Hurricane Harvey will deliver a gut punch of rain, wind and storm surges in Texas. And though weather, like a teenager's mood, is unpredictable, this storm is not slowing down -- it is rapidly gaining strength, and forecasters say it's likely to be a Category 3 hurricane when it makes landfall.
Harvey is expected to hit the Texas coast somewhere near Corpus Christi Friday night and potentially linger there for a few days. Texas residents are bracing for the potential of serious danger and significant damage.
    President Trump, this is not a test.
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    Though there have been many crises to speak of during Trump's tenure, for the most part they have been self-created. Think, for example, of the first days of the administration: a Muslim ban planned in secret, implemented in haste, with no operational input -- all ultimately leading to rallies, protests and lawsuits.
    This administration is about to face a challenge from without -- an act-of-God type challenge -- and it will be judged on whether it has sufficiently nurtured and empowered the bureaucracy -- which it has often dubbed the "swamp" -- to allow it to do what it needs to do: that is, to support local and state planning to prepare for the storm and respond once it hits.
    While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) serves as the point agency for any major crisis like this, its job is to engage the entire federal apparatus to lean in to help the response effort, but not to lead it. Since Hurricane Katrina, federal, state and local agencies have spent considerable time and effort focusing on unified preparedness and response activities. They have the plans; they know what to do.
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    The ultimate lesson of Hurricane Katrina's notorious, slow federal response was a term adopted by President Barack Obama's FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate: Go Big, Go Fast. We are about to see if that will happen. In this regard, politics are relevant. President Trump's insistence that a Mexican-US border wall will be built -- by the US and not by Mexico -- has meant that budget requests are aimed at steering homeland security money away from FEMA and local and state response planning (commonly referred to as preparedness efforts) and toward wall construction. These are budget priorities that will have real world consequences for those on the ground.
    The President faces an additional test in whether he is able to use his role to display the urgency and compassion so many Texas residents need right now. For Trump, there will be no one to blame in this scenario; Mother Nature isn't on Twitter.
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    And the President's tendencies to focus on an "us-them" narrative about everything from health care to white supremacy does not have an audience when a house is under water. Trump, guided by former Homeland Security Secretary and now Chief of Staff John Kelly, will have to ensure that the federal government supports local efforts but does not micromanage a response.
    Government works. Those of us in disaster relief and homeland security have seen how the people who commit to its functioning in so many different capacities can save lives and protect property. And it is at moments like this -- when a benign tropical storm named Harvey swells into something ominous -- that Trump and his team must recognize that there is a great deal of value in "the swamp."