Trump faces first big disaster test

By Scott Waldman, Zack Colman | 08/25/2017 07:25 AM EDT

The major hurricane now bearing down on Texas could prove to be one of the biggest political tests of President Trump’s tenure.

How will President Trump handle Hurricane Harvey?

How will President Trump handle Hurricane Harvey? NOAA (hurricane); LM Otero/Associated Press (Trump)

The major hurricane now bearing down on Texas could prove to be one of the biggest political tests of President Trump’s tenure.

The hurricane is projected to directly hit Corpus Christi today, a city of more than 325,000 people, and it has the potential to cause billions of dollars in damage. Early projections have at least 300,000 losing power, and city officials in Corpus Christi have prodded people living in parts of the city to evacuate. A huge swath of the Texas coast could see a significant storm surge of 12 feet, and some areas could see as much as 4 feet of rain. Peak winds could hit 125 mph.

Hurricane Harvey could be the first Category 3 hurricane to make landfall since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It will gauge for the first time emergency management reforms installed after President George W. Bush’s administration blundered disaster response when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.


The storm comes as the White House is mired in controversy and the administration is short-staffed throughout government. It could shed light on how well Trump can band his bureaucratic brothers in arms together in the event of sizable destruction.

Harvey has the potential to be particularly threatening as it will contain both violent wind speeds and a heavy downpour, said John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of meteorology at Texas A&M University and the Texas state climatologist. And while most hurricanes have one or the other, Harvey has developed both characteristics as it moves over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, he said. The storm’s damage could also be compounded by the fact that local residents have not had much notice about its severity, he said.

"The fact it has developed fairly quickly means there is not as much time for preparation as normal, so some people may be caught by surprise if they are not able to evacuate properly," he said. "Right now, it seems the biggest issue is going to be the potential for heavy rain because the storm is supposed to slow down and stall right after landfall and drop quite a bit of rain in the process."

Robert Meyer, a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said, "If you’re just starting to think about it, you’re kind of too late." Meyer, who’s also the co-author of "The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters," added, "At this late stage, it’s really hard all of a sudden to start pulling together all of the supplies and putting them into the needed area."

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders briefly touched on the potential hurricane yesterday in her first press briefing in nearly three weeks. She said there was little cause for concern about the vacancy atop the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency that’s tasked with disaster response. She noted that career staff and former DHS Secretary-turned-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly are well-positioned to handle the situation.

"There’s certainly someone at the helm," Sanders said. "I think we are in great shape in having Gen. Kelly sitting next to the president throughout this process and probably no better chief of staff to the president during the hurricane season."

Trump later tweeted out a checklist of federal response agencies and a 24-second video of him talking at FEMA offices while dramatic music played. At the bottom of the screen, scrolling by with the speed of a disclaimer in an infomercial, was a quote in capital letters from the president.

"With Hurricane Harvey approaching landfall, remember — the U.S.A. is the most resilient NATION on Earth, because we PLAN AHEAD. Preparedness is an investment in our future!"

Traditionally, it’s local and state governments that take the lead on preparation, Meyer said. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) already has issued an emergency declaration for 30 counties in his state. Even beyond that, Trump’s pick to lead FEMA — Brock Long — is widely respected by emergency managers. But given Texans’ independent streak, the long lapse between the last significant hurricanes and the potential damage it could cause, Trump may have a unique obligation to encourage evacuation if people remain in their homes as Harvey makes landfall.

"Given the severity of the threat, the president — he’s somebody that the people might listen to," Meyer said.

Bungled disaster management can end political careers

Political leaders are often heavily scrutinized by their response to big disasters — and Trump would be no exception.

Hurricane Katrina tarnished the once-bright political careers of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin
. Bush took a major hit from the crisis. A few weeks after the disaster, his job approval rating stood at 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency at the point, though higher than Trump’s current approval of about 37 percent. Just 49 percent of the country felt he could be trusted in a crisis.

"Certainly over the years, mayors, legislative leaders, governors and arguably even Presidents have suffered the consequences of botched handling of disasters," Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said in an email. "Usually that outcome is to be voted out, but I have personally experienced elected leaders that have simply resigned because they were unable or unwilling to handle the very difficult aftermath of a significant disaster event."

The administration’s performance would pull Trump’s priorities into the spotlight. The president has criticized mainstream climate science while proposing cuts to valuable weather monitoring services. His administration’s emphasis on fighting terrorism and bolstering security would shift dollars to those efforts and away from disaster preparedness and response programs on which local and state governments rely.

That comes as climatologists warn that events like hurricanes are more intense due to climate change. A warmer planet causes evaporation to speed up, which means there is more water vapor in the air and leads to more intense rainfalls, according to Katharine Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech University’s Climate Science Center. Rising sea levels make storm surges worse, as well. Both phenomena are studied by federal climate researchers in the programs targeted for budget cuts by the White House and congressional Republicans.

The Trump administration has yet to nominate anyone to head NOAA. That’s the latest among all recent presidents except for Bush, who waited until mid-September of his first term to appoint a head of the agency that oversees the National Weather Service. The Trump administration’s delay in appointing a leader for NOAA comes even as hurricane season is projected to be particularly active this year.

Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget would slash by $767 million FEMA grant funding that state and local governments use to buffer against extreme weather events. Last week, the president revoked an Obama administration standard that would have required projects receiving federal dollars to build to higher flood standards. FEMA boss Long also has suggested shifting more flood insurance responsibility to homeowners and state and local governments rather than the debt-ridden federally funded National Flood Insurance Program that’s up for reauthorization.

On top of that, Trump’s budget would slash spending on weather monitoring programs at NOAA and NWS, potentially making it more difficult to predict and plan for hurricanes. The Trump administration proposed a nearly $1 billion, or 16 percent, cut to NOAA. That includes a 6 percent cut to NWS. NOAA’s satellites, which provide a significant amount of weather data, faced a cut of 20 percent.

"Right now we’re seeing how indispensable the National Hurricane Center’s predictions are in terms of helping with local emergency preparedness efforts and warning people of the dangers they face," Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an email. "The lead time is critical so that people have time to prepare and get out of harm’s way."