All presidents face disasters at some point in their tenure, and how they lead the nation through the response and recovery has a direct impact on the lives of those affected by the event. Hurricane Harvey is the first major natural disaster to test the Trump administration. And as Trump travels to Texas on Tuesday, the people of Texas, Louisiana, and the rest of the nation will be watching.
The first requirement of presidential leadership in any disaster is to set the stage for success. This requires good relationships with state and local responders, fostered through competent leadership at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies. It also requires taking proactive steps to deploy resources in anticipation of need, preparing and signing disaster declarations to release key resources, and for the president to be engaged to support the work of the disaster professionals while also ensuring accountability.
The administration is certainly accomplishing many of these early steps, most notably by placing high-quality professionals in key positions, such as FEMA Administrator, Homeland Security Advisor, and the Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Through their leadership, national response resources and coordination systems were in place ahead of the storm, including the pre-positioning of supplies, search and rescue teams, and medical support teams. Their quick deployment and integration with state and local emergency managers has been instrumental to saving lives in the affected areas.
The president has also been quick to provide approval to the requests for disaster declarations from the governors of Texas and Louisiana. As a result, resources from the Disaster Relief Fund have been made available to support the lifesaving efforts happening right now. The president has also communicated his support for FEMA’s administrator and the responders serving at the frontlines.
But the greatest test of the administration’s disaster response is yet to come.
The threat from Harvey persists, with heavy rains and continued flooding expected throughout the week in Texas and Louisiana.
As the storm recedes, the hard work of recovery must then begin. That is when the lights from the news cameras begin to fade, vulnerable populations are at their greatest risk, and the whole community must come together to rebuild. While like politics, recovery is driven more by local leadership and decisions, but presidential leadership is still essential.
A well-crafted presidential visit after a disaster draws the media back to the region, which in turn brings much-needed attention to motivate action from public and private actors. The rhetoric of a president after a disaster can also encourage disparate groups to come together to help summon the strength to rebuild. It bolsters state and local leadership and helps them rise to the challenge that recovery requires, and can foster good will and hope in the communities devastated by the storm.
With initial estimates of $40 billion in damage and FEMA anticipating more than 450,000 filing for disaster assistance, Harvey will undoubtedly push the limits of the budget and the scope of the Disaster Relief Fund, which has only about $3.8 billion remaining in it as of the end of July, and less than $1.5 billion after current obligations are accounted for through the end of the fiscal year. This will require supplemental funding from Congress as we saw with Hurricanes Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and the historic Louisiana flooding last year. This requires the president to work in collaboration with Congress to pass emergency funding, and convince many senators and congressmen to vote in support of something that does not directly affect their constituents.
Every disaster teaches something for the next. How we prepare as a nation has profound effects on how a community responds to and recovers from a catastrophe. How an administration’s values evolve based on the experience of a disaster also sets the stage for how our nation prepares for, responds to, and recovers from future events.
Ironically, it is in the least political of moments that we need our politicians the most. The people of Texas and Louisiana have suffered a devastating hurricane and flooding, but are resilient. They will recover. But how fast and how strong will be determined by how much the nation, and our president, works in the interests of the “whole community” of those affected.
Jeff Schlegelmilch is the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has over a decade of experience in developing programs for community resilience and public health preparedness and advised numerous local, state and federal officials on preparedness policies and programs. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschlegel.