As Hurricane Harvey takes aim at Texas, and residents along the Gulf Coast make their final round of preparations for the storm, even before the first hurricane force winds reach the United States, it’s not too soon to imagine what might happen in the days ahead if there is major damage from this tropical system.
Politics might not be your first thought – but here in Washington, D.C., which is already chest-high in an ongoing political typhoon over the Trump Administration – it’s reasonable to assume that if there is major damage in Texas and/or in other states around the Gulf of Mexico, the quality of the government’s disaster response could quickly become an issue as it has in past hurricanes.
Some thoughts – before the storm arrives in the Lone Star State:
1. If there are problems, it gets political fast. Hugo. Andrew. Katrina. Sandy. Big storms that caused big damage can also have big political repercussions. You already probably know the line from President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he said to his FEMA director, in a quote that still gets bandied around nine years later, as the troubled Katrina response caused major headaches for the President and his administration. Do not underestimate the politics of a hurricane, especially political pressure from disaster relief that falls short in the aftermath of a storm. Social media and the internet also have the potential to magnify those shortcomings in a way that we have not experienced before. The last time a major hurricane struck the U.S. was in October 2005 – that’s almost 12 years ago.
2. The head of FEMA is Brock Long. While several hundred political appointments remain unfilled in the Trump Administration, the President does have someone heading the Federal Emergency Management Agency – Brock Long, once the head of Alabama’s EMA and a former FEMA official; he was confirmed by the Senate in June. While supporters say that Long is the right man for the FEMA job, he certainly hasn’t been tested yet at the federal level, where miscues can be amplified after a major hurricane – just ask Brownie. In 2017, FEMA is now an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, which has an acting Secretary, after John Kelly switched over to the job of President Trump’s White House Chief of Staff. Here’s an interview from last month that the new FEMA chief did with the Weather Channel:
3. How does President Trump deal with a natural disaster? The White House had little to say on Thursday about Hurricane Harvey, as forecasters suddenly ratcheted up their predictions from a weak hurricane to a weather scenario that might reach major hurricane status. “The President has been briefed and will continue to be updated as the storm progresses and certainly something he’s very aware of, and we’ll keep a very watchful eye on, and stands ready to provide resources if needed,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of Mr. Trump. As for the President, he tweeted out a well produced video – almost like a promotional film for a campaign – which highlighted his recent visit to FEMA to get an update about government prep for hurricanes. Videos are easy to make. Disaster recovery can be messy.
4. If there is major damage, it becomes a major issue in Congress. You want some political controversy? Then just imagine where we are in early September if Harvey turns into a giant storm that brings major damage in coastal areas of Texas, with a recovery price tag running into the tens of billions of dollars. Turn back the clock to 2013, in the time after Hurricane Sandy, and you’ll see the furor on Capitol Hill after some GOP lawmakers tried to force offsetting budget cuts to pay for an initial round of money for the federal flood insurance program – interestingly enough, that program needs to be reauthorized by the Congress in September anyway, which means that if Harvey causes big damage, we may well see a fight over disaster relief money, along with everything else that has to be dealt with by Congress after Labor Day. Oh, and by the way, the federal flood insurance program is $23 billion in the red – before Harvey does any damage.
5. “Where in the hell is the cavalry?” Most of the focus on troubles after a hurricane is often because of the difficulty in getting aid to those in the hardest-hit areas. That was especially true after Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida in August of 1992 – 25 years ago. The emergency manager of Dade County Florida famously asked, “Where in the hell is the cavalry?” as it became apparent that the area was struggling to deal with the aftermath of the storm, which veered just south of Miami – or it would have been an even bigger disaster. After Hugo, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) decried “that FEMA crowd,” in frustration over bureaucratic federal recovery efforts. Katrina had its own post-storm troubles as well, as mentioned above. The briefings and press conferences involving FEMA, mayors and Governors will sound very important. But it’s a whole different story in terms of getting food, water and other supplies to those living in an area that’s been decimated by wind and water. And since we haven’t had a major hurricane hit the United States coastline since 2005, the price tag of damage associated with a major tropical system could be astronomical.
Hopefully, the forecast won’t be accurate, and we won’t have a major disaster on our hands in Texas.
But if we do, realize that it can cause major political problems.