Debate on whether to show up for flood misses the point

Published 1:19 PM EDT, Tue August 23, 2016

Story highlights

More than 60,000 homes were damaged in recent flooding in Louisiana

Juliette Kayyem: It's time to focus on those displaced, not on who will or won't show

Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” She is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

So the flooding in Louisiana has come down to this: whether Donald Trump was right to visit the disaster area, whether President Barack Obama was too late in traveling there Tuesday, and whether Hillary Clinton should jump on a plane and show up. At least that’s how it has felt judging by some of the headlines.

But as the water begins to recede in the state, leaving behind at least 13 people dead and some 60,000 homes damaged, it is important to refocus on what is really important here. Similar problems will occur again and again, because the reality is that flooding continues to be the nation’s most costly disaster. With that in mind, it’s time to focus on the thousands of people who have been displaced, and not on who will or won’t be showing up.

Juliette Kayyem
PHOTO: Douglas M. Weisman
Juliette Kayyem

I’ve seen this issue close up, having worked at the Department of Homeland Security earlier in the Obama administration. So I have some strong thoughts on the “show up” aspects of disaster management.

The idea that visits by politicians are an integral part of demonstrating concern and resolving challenges has become a time-sapping truism. A day or two of manpower is spent ensuring that the right people are invited, the right room is secured for the press conference, and the right victims are found to highlight the devastation. I have met many a first responder who will say that they have pulled an all-nighter just to focus on a political visit.

Join us on

This isn’t to say that these visits shouldn’t happen – part of a leader’s role is indeed to show up and show empathy. But it is also important to remember that we need to strike a balance between demonstrating empathy and doing what is best for those out in the field.

That balance changes when it’s a sitting politician’s visit we are talking about, rather than an aspiring one.

There is a fundamental difference when a president, governor or mayor visit a disaster site because they have the capacity to fix problems, fire people and drive resources where they are needed. Put simply, they can, well, actually do something. A candidate – any candidate – can’t really do much more than say, “Hey, I’m here,” which may draw attention to the disaster but does little to solve problems on the ground.

But there’s more to it than that. The “show up/don’t show up” debate is less about whether and when Obama goes to Louisiana, and more about whether the response is such that the President has confidence in those he has entrusted with the responsibility to deal with a given disaster.

During the Gulf oil spill in 2010, Obama traveled to the region five times, and in one instance took his daughters to swim in the Florida waters to show they were safe. It was not really about the oil though. It was about his concern that the Coast Guard response started too slowly and continued to be too ineffective, and so he needed to show he understood that for the citizens affected.

The connection between the response and a president’s presence on the ground was no clearer than during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with President George W. Bush’s flyover of the region. No one actually believes that Bush’s presence during the flooding would have been a good use of anyone’s time; people were still dying. But the flyover became a symbol for the ineffectiveness of the federal response itself, mainly that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s. (Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if Bush’s plane had landed – he would have suffered the same criticism because the government’s response was so horrible.)

What does this mean for Tuesday’s visit to Louisiana? Well, in this case Obama’s visit is an opportunity to validate what is, by all accounts – Republican and Democratic – an aggressive response. Eight federal disaster recovery centers have been opened. As of Tuesday, more than 115,000 individuals and households have registered with FEMA for assistance, and more than 25,000 national flood insurance policyholders have submitted claims for flood loss, with $127 million already being distributed. The private sector, from Airbnb to Walmart, also has stepped up to complement these efforts.

The response underscores that while both Katrina and this latest flooding are tragedies, there is a difference between a disaster and a crisis. A disaster is anticipated – and we can surely expect more flooding in the future, especially as the Earth warms. A crisis, in contrast, is where the systems to address a disaster fail or are overwhelmed. That is not the case today in Louisiana.

So, perhaps the President’s visit Tuesday will draw attention to how much FEMA has changed since Hurricane Katrina (and is simultaneously preparing for two approaching potential hurricane systems in the Atlantic), or the need to support changes to our flood disaster program to protect more homeowners, or just provide a shoulder for those who have lost so much.

But whatever the result, the truth is that showing up is the easy part. Making government work when people need it is the real challenge.