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Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s response to Hurricane Florence will be closely watched after angry tweets about Puerto Rico death toll

The politics of natural disasters can be tricky for a US president

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2018, 11:06am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2018, 9:48pm

Even before Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina, US President Donald Trump was kicking up a storm of controversy.

Outraged over criticism of his handling of Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico – where he tossed rolls of paper towels to a crowd of people on the island – he falsely blamed Democrats for inflating the death toll to 3,000.

Discounting an academic study produced by George Washington University and accepted by the island territory’s local government, Trump tweeted that the number had arisen “like magic”.

The barrage of angry tweets guarantees that his handling of the current storm, which is still battering North and South Carolina, will be under the microscope.

Eleven people had been reported dead by Saturday evening, and hundreds needed to be rescued from flooded homes.

Hurricanes have been political minefields for presidents in the past, most notably President George W. Bush. He was excoriated over his administration’s poor handling of Hurricane Katrina, which killed between 1,000 and 1,800 people in 2005.

Bush’s delay in visiting New Orleans was fiercely criticised – he was infamously photographed looking down on the city from a window on Air Force One.

The controversy over Katrina contributed to Bush’s political problems, which included a war in Iraq that was longer and bloodier than his administration had promised, and Democrats won back control of Congress the following year.

This year, Democrats are angling to pry the US House of Representatives away from Republicans.

Trump’s job performance is already a key issue in the midterm election in November.

Despite strong economic numbers, he remains deeply unpopular. The Real Clear Politics average of polls places his disapproval rating at 53.4 per cent and his approval rating at 40.9 per cent.

It’s unclear, however, how much Hurricane Florence might affect voters’ decisions.

Opinions about Trump have largely hardened, with Republicans making excuses for his missteps and Democrats adding to their list of outrages.

The White House has taken pains to show the president is on top of the situation.

Days before the storm made landfall, reporters were ushered into the Oval Office for a briefing with Trump, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

On Saturday evening, the White House released a photo of Trump on the phone with emergency officials as Vice-President Mike Pence stands to his right with arms crossed.

The president is also planning to visit the region this week “once it is determined his travel will not disrupt any rescue or recovery efforts,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Trump hasn’t stopped tweeting grievances about his political opponents, but he has mixed in positive messages about the response to the storm.

“Great job FEMA, First Responders and Law Enforcement – not easy, very dangerous, tremendous talent,” he tweeted on Friday.

“America is proud of you. Keep it all going – finish strong!”

Trump expressed sadness and support for Florence’s victims on Saturday evening in another tweet. “Deepest sympathies and warmth go out to the families and friends of the victims. May God be with them!” – but he appeared to have outdated information, mentioning only five deaths.

By the time he tweeted his message, the toll had risen to at least 11.

It’s too soon to fully assess the federal government’s performance in Hurricane Florence. The operation has been massive, including local first responders, out-of-state emergency crews and National Guard units.

But South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, a Republican and early Trump supporter, said he had spoken to Trump, who told him his state would get what it needed.

“He has said they would do whatever it takes to see that everything is available for South Carolina,” McMaster said.

How US presidents have grappled with disaster politics

DONALD TRUMP

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 US 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 120cm 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 crisps 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 coastguard 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 coastguard 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 throwing 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.

BARACK OBAMA

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

Republican Governor 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 re-election boost for Obama when he was being challenged by Republican Mitt Romney.

The storm is blamed for 182 deaths and cost about US$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, 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.

GEORGE W. BUSH

President George W. Bush, praised for his leadership after the September 11 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 US$151 billion dollars in damage. Much public blame went to the Bush administration for a too-slow response.

Together, the holiday, 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

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 centre, a woman can be heard in footage preserved by C-SPAN 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.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press