Ex-FEMA official: Trump needs to tell the whole truth about Harvey

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Story highlights

  • Lars Anderson: Trump's words matter greatly in Hurricane Harvey aftermath
  • President needs to help set realistic expectations for the long road to recovery

Lars Anderson is the Founding Partner at BlueDot Strategies, a strategic consulting firm, and was the counselor to the administrator, deputy chief of staff, and director of public affairs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2012-2015. During the response to Hurricane Sandy, he was responsible for coordinating the federal government's external affairs resources. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)What do you say to someone who's lost everything?

At this moment in Houston and other places affected by Hurricane Harvey, parents are sitting in emergency shelters wondering: How will we rebuild our home? How will we get to work? How will we get the kids to school -- and is there a school to go to?
Lars Anderson
This is the scene President Donald Trump flew into Tuesday. And to be sure, the people who have suffered in Harvey's wake needed to hear from him. In a national disaster, the words of the President of the United States matter. He needs to be reassuring to survivors.
    But there is something else he must do. He needs to help set realistic expectations for the long road to recovery. He needs to tell them the truth.
    The truth is that over the course of the storm, more than 24 trillion gallons of water have fallen on Southeast Texas and southern Louisiana. This recovery will take years and billions of dollars. People continue to be evacuated and tens of thousands of residents will need temporary shelter and transportation to jobs and schools.
    The truth is, actually, that he would do well to take a page from President Barack Obama. As Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012, those of us at FEMA knew that any failure on our part would be directed at the President. He had an election just weeks away, but his only message to us was to save lives.
    He hugged survivors. He called local leaders every day. He made Hurricane Sandy about all of us and led us in how to help them begin the recovery process. Trump faces an even bigger disaster.
    (To get a sense of scale here, consider that in Sandy, the NYPD Special Operations division and FDNY water rescue teams rescued more than 2,200 people during and after the storm, though both departments estimate that hundreds more were likely rescued but not reported, according to the New York City Hurricane Sandy After-Action Report. This is dwarfed by Harvey: search and rescue teams have rescued more than 3,800 and the Coast Guard has rescued more than 6,000 -- so far -- according to FEMA estimates.)
    It is easy to see why President Trump must show full engagement. He, too can lead by example, by making this -- not other issues -- his focus, and the nation's focus. He can set aside tax reform for the moment, and tell people how to get involved, where to donate money and volunteer. He has the most powerful bully pulpit in the world and he needs to use it to drive attention and aid to the region. He needs to show that he's pushing hard -- every day.
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    Words -- and the "optics" meant to telegraph them -- are equally as important in recovery.
    FEMA and other responders know how effective communication matters in emergencies. We've seen this over the past few days as the Coast Guard communicated clearly how to safely call upon them for rescue. Meteorologists clarified that even though the hurricane was downgraded, the worst flooding was yet to come. These messages are rehearsed and practiced because in a disaster, the right words can save lives.
    Recovery will not be "quick" as President Trump said. And his waving a Texas flag, as he did Tuesday in Corpus Christi, won't help the people standing in lines to register for FEMA assistance.
    On Wednesday, floodwaters were still rising and people continued to be rescued by helicopter. Yet President Trump went to Missouri -- to talk about tax reform -- with a brief prelude to acknowledge the heroic work of first responders, and add that "recovery will be tough but I have seen the resilience of the American spirit firsthand all over this country."
    This was an improvement on his tone-deaf remarks the previous day, but he needs to show he is focused enough on Harvey.
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    As Americans, we will all have to bear the burden of recovery and rebuilding, so it is critical that the President leads by making Houston's success an American success. That starts by staying on topic as the nation's 4th largest city reels after a storm of biblical proportions. He must remind us that we're in it together, not change the subject.
    From my years at FEMA, this I know: Having a realistic perspective is as much a part of recovering from a crisis as the giant to-do list that face most families. Having a realistic understanding about how Hurricane Harvey will transform our country will force those of us not in harm's way to take a serious look at our own priorities and preparation.
    President Trump must get survivors ready for the long haul, convey a clear understanding of the immense challenges ahead, not use his time before the cameras to set timelines for self-congratulation for his administration's job well done, as the President alluded to in Corpus Christi, or spend Twitter time politicking about NAFTA and tax reform.
    Regardless of what the President tweets, the survivors of Harvey will rebuild their lives, but they will be different than before. Trump himself set the expectation that his way will be the best way. We should hold him to that.