Botched response to Katrina looms large over Trump's White House
Trump adviser insists the government's ability to respond to storms has improved since Katrina
President Donald Trump is facing down the first major hurricane of his administration well aware of the potential of monster storms to make – or break – a political career.
After Trump spent Friday morning tweeting about his frustration with Senate rules, lauding his “fantastic” chief of staff and taunting Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the administration seemed to buckle down as Hurricane Harvey took aim at the Texas coast. George W. Bush’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people and inundated New Orleans in 2005, loomed large over Trump’s White House.
“It’s not just on my mind, but it’s on the mind of all the emergency managers in our community,” White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said of Katrina during a press briefing.
He insisted the government’s ability to respond to storms has improved since Katrina and said Trump is fully engaged in preparations as he heads to Camp David for the weekend. Bossert said Trump is worried about all Americans in the storm’s path – regardless of whether they voted for the President.
“This is right up President Trump’s alley,” Bossert said. “Not only has he shown leadership here, but his entire focus has been on making America great again.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she expected Trump to visit Texas next week.
Opportunity for Trump
Harvey provides an opportunity for Trump early in his tumultuous presidency. A strong, even-handed and coordinated response from federal, state and local officials could give the President a chance to demonstrate leadership skills. If he can muster a level of discipline that often evades him, a news cycle dominated for days could help Trump, distracting from feuds with fellow Republicans, including his widely criticized response to violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But an uneven performance could reinforce perceptions of an administration in chaos and unable to execute the basic tasks of government.
Katrina is the most famous example of a hurricane sparking political – as well as material – devastation. Bush’s distracted response inflicted a blow from which his presidency, already reeling from the insurgency in Iraq and the failure of Social Security reform, never recovered.
“Just as Katrina was more than a hurricane, its impact was more than physical destruction,” Bush wrote in his memoir “Decision Points.” “It eroded citizens’ trust in their government. It exacerbated divisions in our own society and politics. And it cast a cloud over my second term.”
Bush said he was slow to realize the chaotic nature of the response to the storm from New Orleans city authorities and Louisiana state leaders. His White House then made things worse by releasing photos of Bush staring at the devastation out of a window of Air Force One, making him look detached from the suffering.
After viewers watched harrowing scenes of Americans abandoned by their government in their flooded city, Bush praised his hapless director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mike Brown, for doing “a heck of a job.” That comment triggered a torrent of ridicule.
“In a national catastrophe, the easiest person to blame is the President. Katrina presented a political opportunity that some critics exploited for years,” Bush wrote in “Decision Points.”
His Katrina missteps were all the more surprising as he had witnessed the perilous nexus of hurricanes and politics during his father’s presidency, a few months before the 1992 election.
After Hurricane Andrew ravaged Florida, Dade County Emergency Management Director Kate Hale complained about the national response, instantly turning a story about a disaster into a huge political issue.
“Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?” Hale asked.
Federal aid soon poured into Florida. George H.W. Bush visited and then delivered an Oval Office address on the storm. Even though polls showed a majority of Floridians approved of Bush’s management of Andrew and he went on to win the state, suggestions that he was slow to react were fuel for Bill Clinton’s narrative that he was not focused on domestic issues.
One Bush who sought to turn hurricanes into an advantage was Jeb Bush, who was lauded for his emergency response efforts while Florida governor. He used that experience to contrast himself with Trump during the 2016 GOP primaries.
“Look, there’s some people running that are really talented about filling the space, about saying big things,” Bush said in Pensacola in August 2015.
“They think that volume in their language is a kind of a version of leadership,” he went on. “Talking is not leadership. Doing is leadership.”
Ultimately, of course, that experience wasn’t enough for Bush to prevail over Trump.
Learning lessons of Katrina
Barack Obama learned the political lessons of Katrina well, and his White House went out of its way to show him engaged, visiting emergency officials and calling for evacuations when storms threatened the US coast. When Hurricane Sandy roared across the east coast in a classic “October Surprise,” Obama flexed leadership skills and empathy just over a week before the 2012 election.
Trump, who had yet to officially launch his political career, was already alert to the political consequences of a devastating storm during Sandy.
“Hurricane is good luck for Obama again- he will buy the election by handing out billions of dollars,” Trump tweeted on October 30, 2012.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s famous embrace of Obama and his praise of the administration’s response conferred bipartisan bragging rights upon the President in the final chapter of the campaign. Christie’s alignment with Obama helped him win re-election a year later in a state that usually votes Democratic at the presidential level, though it infuriated fellow Republicans and proved a liability during the 2016 GOP primary.
Sandy also showed how blanket television coverage of storms can obliterate other news. Obama’s Republican opponent Mitt Romney simply found it tough to break through at a crucial political moment.
Nearly five years later, Sandy’s political legacy is still unfolding. Should New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker run for president in the future, his campaign would likely highlight his performance during Sandy while he was mayor of Newark and used his Twitter account to connect with residents and offered to deliver blankets, baby milk and other supplies.