Trump’s Reassuring Hurricane Response
President Trump visited Texas Tuesday to assess the damage from Hurricane Harvey and show concern for its victims. So far, his administration is largely getting praise for effective handling of the crisis. Washington’s disaster authorities appear to be in sync with the state on roles and responsibilities; the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its leader, Brock Long, deployed resources as Harvey approached; and the government response as a whole appears well coordinated.
“I give FEMA a grade of A-plus, all the way from the president down,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told “Fox News Sunday.” Yes, Mr. Abbott is a fellow Republican, but he is also interested in protecting Texas and would not have said “A-plus” if the state weren’t getting what it needed. That assessment is backed up by Rear Adm. W. Craig Vanderwagen, a former career emergency manager who is plugged into the Harvey effort. “Early read,” he told me in an email, “is that Executive Branch is performing well under this President.”
Two reasons suggest themselves for the apparent success: personnel and preparation. Mr. Trump has surrounded himself with leaders experienced in this area. John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, is fresh off his stint as the secretary of homeland security. He brought to the White House his own deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen, a veteran of George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Council.
Tom Bossert, another Bush alumnus now advising Mr. Trump on homeland security, has acquitted himself well on television, projecting calm and expertise as he discusses the hurricane response. It may be premature to conclude that Mr. Kelly has succeeded in bringing order to the Oval Office, but Harvey has demonstrated a reassuring ability to focus on a disaster when needed.
Beyond the White House, Mr. Trump still lags behind his predecessors in filling political appointments, but he appears to have prioritized the right ones. The president has made nominations for about half the slots at the Department of Homeland Security, more than at most departments. Some nominees, such as Mr. Long’s two deputies at FEMA, await Senate confirmation hearings. Mr. Long is an experienced hand, having previously served as Alabama’s head of emergency management. He has been a reassuring and take-charge presence throughout the Harvey response.
Mr. Long began preparing for the next disaster the day he was sworn in, when he presided over a cabinet-wide tabletop exercise on emergency management. Frank Cilluffo, a homeland security aide in the Bush administration, says this showed the White House was taking disaster readiness seriously. “Training is everything here,” he told me. “You want to make mistakes on the practice field, not in the actual event.” Then in early August, weeks before Harvey showed up on the radar, Mr. Long hosted the president and other cabinet officials at FEMA for a briefing on the coming hurricane season.
Thus far, the most controversial part of the president’s hurricane response has been communications. On the positive side of the ledger, Mr. Trump has used his vast Twitterfollowing both to provide useful information and to convey that the White House is actively monitoring events. On Tuesday he retweeted an urgent alert from Brazoria County saying that a levee at Columbia Lakes had been breached and residents needed to get out immediately.
Mr. Trump’s tweets about the storm have been informative and responsible, with a tone appropriate to the human tragedy. To the extent he has been criticized, it has been mostly for tweeting on unrelated topics, such as his pardoning of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the “great” new book by Sheriff David Clarke. Although it isn’t realistic to expect the White House to eschew all other subjects during a crisis, perhaps the president could avoid tweeting about unessential matters until the storm passes.
Outside Twitter, the administration has relied on experts like Messrs. Long and Bossert to reassure the public, which seems an appropriate strategy. Message discipline matters. When responding to a disaster, Mr. Cilluffo says, you “can’t have one message here, another message there, and a tweet saying a third thing.”
It’s reassuring that the White House understands the importance of relying on trusted messengers during a crisis—especially given the backlash to Mr. Trump’s comments this month after the violence in Charlottesville, Va. During an emergency, the government needs wide cooperation from the public, which may not be possible under any president with credibility problems. Messrs. Long and Bossert have the standing to appeal to Americans across the partisan divide during Harvey and whatever disaster may come next.
Mr. Trump’s handling of the hurricane response thus far is to be commended, but this is no time for complacency. The recovery in Texas will take a long time, and new disasters are always in the offing. The Trump administration would serve Americans well by following its successful approach to this first crisis with a continuing focus on disaster management. Today it’s Harvey. Tomorrow, who knows?
Mr. Troy, a former deputy secretary of health and human services, is author of “Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office” (Lyons Press, 2016).
Appeared in the August 30, 2017, print edition.