President Trump has no idea what’s happening in Puerto Rico
Extraordinary crises are the acid test of presidential leadership.
As I learned while managing the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, a president’s personal engagement is the indispensable variable in ensuring a fully engaged federal crisis response. In the face of unusually complex and devastating emergencies, the federal government must transcend business-as-usual, mounting the sort of massive whole-of-government effort that only the president can fully mobilize. What the nation has witnessed in Puerto Rico over the past two weeks sadly demonstrates the inverse: the shortfalls that emerge when a president leaves a major federal disaster response on autopilot.
President Trump’s tactless comments during his visit to San Juan this week provide a good microcosm of the larger issue. Trump repeatedly downplayed the severity of the crisis; described his administration’s response as “incredible” and “unbelievable”; praised the then-official death toll of 16 as something Puerto Ricans “can be very proud of”; told disaster survivors at a distribution site “you don’t need” the flashlights he was handing to them; and claimed Puerto Rico had not experienced a “real catastrophe, like Hurricane Katrina.” Those remarks followed other comments from Trump and his senior advisers who have characterized the federal response as “amazing,” and “a good news story.”
As tone-deaf as Trump’s self-congratulations were, they reflect a much deeper problem than just a flawed communications strategy. The president’s remarks in Puerto Rico were factually wrong in ways that raise serious questions about whether he grasps the depth of the crisis — and whether he truly has a handle on the federal response.
Consider the death toll. There have been multiple public reports that the official count (now at least 34) remains artificially low due to the breakdowns of communications and public administration on the island. The Center for Investigative Journalism in San Juan has been calling hospitals to inquire about mortality figures in areas they serve, and the nonprofit news organization estimates dozens and perhaps hundreds more deaths have occurred but not yet been documented. Trump’s advisers, who include people with considerable disaster response experience, surely understand the death toll will rise. Yet the president seemed unaware.
He seemed equally unaware that, his flashlights comment notwithstanding, 93 percent of the island remains without power. He appeared puzzled by the concept of water purification. While Katrina did have a higher death toll than the initial count from Maria, the devastation in Puerto Rico is affecting a population seven times that of pre-storm New Orleans and looks likely to take far longer to address. It is a “real” catastrophe, indeed.
There is no way to generously spin the president’s comments; he appears to have a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the seriousness of this crisis. Whether he is getting poor information or simply ignoring his briefings, this is a critical handicap to the federal response effort.
In a more standard disaster event, that might not be such a big deal. The federal government has seasoned and capable emergency managers who can, in the face of a typical disaster, mount an effective response even without close presidential involvement. The federal responses to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, for example, were robust and effective. However, Hurricane Maria — like Katrina — has spawned a disaster that is anything but typical.
Puerto Rico’s crisis poses major difficulties for disaster responders. The territory’s fragile infrastructure was highly vulnerable and suffered widespread damage. The logistical challenges of operating in an island setting make pre-storm evacuation impossible and slow down post-storm relief. Maria struck at a time when the Federal Emergency Management Agency is uniquely overstretched, having been on a round-the-clock operational tempo since Harvey struck Texas a month and a half ago. The response strains FEMA’s normal operating model, which is premised on capable state and local disaster authorities leading most of the initial front-line response. FEMA has lacked that in Puerto Rico, in part because so many local officials were themselves caught in the disaster. So federal officials have instead had to play much more of a lead role, something FEMA is not accustomed to doing.
Situations like this, when the normal federal tools are overmatched by the complexity of the crisis, require attentive, disciplined and creative presidential leadership. Yet in the critical early days of the response, Trump focused his attention elsewhere. He tweeted repeatedly about the NFL immediately after the storm, yet did not hold a high-level meeting on the Puerto Rico response until six days after Maria made landfall. In the absence of a sense of urgency from the White House, what emerged from his administration has been a comparatively modest federal response.