Feel­ing your pain: Pres­i­dents tread tricky dis­as­ter pol­i­tics

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - By Lau­rie Kell­man

WASHINGTON » The pol­i­tics of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters can be tricky for a pres­i­dent.

Long be­fore Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tossed pa­per tow­els to storm-stricken Puerto Ri­cans and de­nied Hur­ri­cane Maria’s of­fi­cial death toll, his pre­de­ces­sors strug­gled to steer the na­tion through life-and-death emer­gen­cies.

To project em­pa­thy with­out look­ing weak. To show both com­mand and co­op­er­a­tion. To put the fo­cus on vic­tims — but pro­vide lead­er­ship, too.

A look at how pres­i­dents have grap­pled with the chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties of dis­as­ter pol­i­tics:


Trump is not known for shows of em­pa­thy and rel­ishes fights he thinks will res­onate with his core sup­port­ers.

That in­cludes a bit­ter and last­ing brawl with Puerto Rico in the year since the U.S. ter­ri­tory was dev­as­tated by Hur­ri­cane Maria. He also has grap­pled with get­ting it right in ruby-red Texas and Louisiana after Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, which dumped nearly 50 inches of rain near Hous­ton.

Trump’s first post-Har­vey trip to Texas gen­er­ated blow­back for his fail­ure to meet with vic­tims of the storm. Four days later, he re­turned — and urged people at a Hous­ton shel­ter to “have a good time.” He also cheered on vol­un­teers and emer­gency work­ers and handed out hot dogs and potato chips to res­i­dents. Some crit­ics said the pres­i­dent’s trip took on the tone of a vic­tory lap for suc­cess­ful dis­as­ter man­age­ment.

Trump has had trou­ble keep­ing facts right about the dev­as­tat­ing storms un­der his watch.

In June, Trump said on a con­fer­ence call that the Coast Guard had saved thou­sands of people while Hous­ton was un­der wa­ter, in­clud­ing what he sug­gested were hur­ri­cane gawk­ers. “People went out in their boats to watch the hur­ri­cane. That didn’t work out too well,” the pres­i­dent said. There is no in­di­ca­tion the Coast Guard res­cued fool­hardy storm watch­ers drift­ing off the Texas coast.

Then there’s Puerto Rico, flat­tened by Maria as a Cat­e­gory 4 storm nearly a year ago. Trump pumped two fists in the air when he landed in San Juan last Oc­to­ber. The en­dur­ing im­age was of Trump at a San Juan church lob­bing pa­per tow­els into the crowd as if shoot­ing bas­kets. At the time, it seemed to re­flect Trump’s brand of play­ful­ness. Many people in the crowd smiled and raised their phones to record the mo­ment. But crit­ics quickly dubbed it in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the mas­sive, grim cri­sis at hand.

A year later, the of­fi­cial death toll from the storm stands at 2,975. Even as Hur­ri­cane Florence ap­proached the Caroli­nas this week, Trump re­jected that count and griped that it’s the prod­uct of Democrats try­ing to make him “look bad.” He also tweeted

that San Juan Mayor Car­men Yulin Cruz, a fre­quent Trump critic, is “in­com­pe­tent.”

“The vic­tims of Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico in gen­eral do not de­serve to be ques­tioned about their pain,” said Gov. Ri­cardo Ros­sello.


On Oct. 29, 2012, Hur­ri­cane Sandy made land­fall in At­lantic City, New Jersey, and be­came the costli­est storm in U.S. his­tory be­hind Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005.

Repub­li­can Gov. Chris Christie in­vited Demo­cratic Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to view the storm dam­age, and when the pres­i­dent ar­rived, the two shared a friendly, widely pho­tographed greet­ing. At one point, as the two shook hands, Obama put his left hand on Christie’s right shoul­der. The re­sult­ing im­age was de­rided by some con­ser­va­tives as a “hug” — and a po­ten­tial re­elec­tion boost for Obama when he was be­ing chal­lenged by Repub­li­can Mitt Rom­ney.

The storm is blamed for 182 deaths and cost about $70 bil­lion in New Jersey and New York.

It was one of sev­eral nat­u­ral

dis­as­ters that gave Obama the op­por­tu­nity to play the tra­di­tional role of com­forter-in-chief.

A year ear­lier, a tor­nado dev­as­tated Jo­plin, Mis­souri, with winds up to 250 mph and claimed at least 159 lives. Obama vis­ited the moon­scape of rub­ble and tree stumps, and de­liv­ered an emo­tional memo­rial ser­vice speech in which he told the sto­ries of heroic ef­forts by in­di­vid­u­als dur­ing the storm.

“It’s in these mo­ments, through our ac­tions, that we of­ten see the glimpse of what makes life worth liv­ing in the first place,” Obama told the crowd.


Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, praised for his lead­er­ship after the Sept. 11, 2001 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, stum­bled dur­ing what proved to be the gov­ern­ment’s in­ad­e­quate re­sponse to deadly Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina four years later.

Head­ing back to Washington after nearly a month on his ranch, Bush had Air Force One fly over part of the dev­as­ta­tion, giv­ing him a view of it from high above. The mo­ment was pre­served in pho­to­graphs and gen­er­ated crit­i­cism that he didn’t come in per­son.

“Brownie, you’re do­ing a heck of a job,” he told FEMA Di­rec­tor Michael Brown, three days after Ka­t­rina flooded New Or­leans. The storm left 1,800 people dead and caused $151 bil­lion dol­lars in dam­age. Much pub­lic blame went to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion for a too-slow re­sponse.

To­gether, the vacation, the high-al­ti­tude tour and Bush’s “Brownie mo­ment” left a last­ing im­pres­sion that the pres­i­dent had been de­tached from the tragedy on the ground.

In his 2010 book “De­ci­sion Points,” the for­mer pres­i­dent re­flected on his mis­takes dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, writ­ing that he should have urged the evac­u­a­tion of New Or­leans sooner, vis­ited sooner and shown more em­pa­thy.


Bill Clin­ton, who fa­mously claimed dur­ing the 1992 cam­paign “I feel your pain,” was a nat­u­ral at con­nect­ing with dis­as­ter vic­tims. As pres­i­dent, he vis­ited Des Moines, Iowa, the next year to ex­am­ine flood dam­age in the re­gion. He shook hands with people who had lost their homes as well as Na­tional Guard troops.

Dur­ing a visit to a wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter, a woman can be heard in footage pre­served by CSPAN telling him, “My house was flooded.”

“I’m so sorry,” Clin­ton replied.

A weep­ing woman in pink with a blue small cooler in her hand told Clin­ton, “My par­ents lost their home and I have not been home for like a week. I can’t take it any­more.”

He draped an arm around her and said, “Hang in there.”


In this Aug, 31, 2005 file photo, Pres­i­dent Bush looks out the win­dow of Air Force One in­spect­ing dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina while fly­ing over New Or­leans en route back to the White House.


In this file photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie greets Pres­i­dent Barack Obama upon his ar­rival at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.


In this file photo, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tosses pa­per tow­els into a crowd at Cal­vary Chapel in Guayn­abo, Puerto Rico.

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