Floods Can Sink a Presidency: What Comes Next for Trump After Harvey?

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President George W. Bush peers out the cabin window of Air Force One as he surveys the damage from Katrina along the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Mannie Garcia/REUTERS

When Air Force One touched down in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Tuesday, President Donald Trump seemed to have an eye on how his administration’s response to Hurricane Harvey and the historic flooding it unleashed on Houston could define his already turbulent administration. “We want to do it better than ever before,” Trump said of the federal response during a meeting with local, state and federal officials. “We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years, from now as: This is the way to do it.”

Trump is acutely aware of the legacy of Hurricane Katrina and how the botched federal response marked, perhaps, the low point of the George W. Bush’s administration. When the Category 3 storm slammed into Louisiana in 2005, Bush was in San Diego, attending a birthday party for Senator John McCain, and he chose a flyover of the chaos in New Orleans rather than touching down. When he eventually got around to visiting the submerged city, his praise of Michael D. Brown, the hapless administrator of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, only made things worse. His remark, “You’re doing a heckuva a job, Brownie,” became an enduring reminder of how out of touch Bush was at that point. Brown whose previous job before coming to FEMA was at the International Arabian Horse Association, had no real disaster qualifications save for being close friends with Joe Allbaugh, a longtime Bush aide who was the president’s first FEMA director.

Because Harvey is still pounding the Texas Gulf Coast, and because of the historic scope of the disaster, it’s too early to say how Trump’s FEMA is doing. William “Brock” Long, the recently confirmed FEMA administrator, brings impressive disaster credentials to the job, including running Alabama’s emergency management agency. The Gulf Coast is kind of like the top minor-league level for recruiting FEMA administrators. President Barack Obama’s widely praised FEMA director, Craig Fugate, ran Florida’s Division of Emergency when Jeb Bush was governor.

Presidents, Trump included, have learned that a botched response to a disaster can be a political death sentence. Bush’s painfully slow response to Katrina stood in contrast to the swift federal response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The chaos at the Superdome, the sluggish delivery of food and water to the city’s refugees, and the infighting between federal, state and local officials made Katrina an object lesson in how not to handle a disaster.

The chaos in Houston could, though, act as a springboard for Trump to improve his low poll numbers. President Bill Clinton’s response to the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City proved a pivotal moment in his troubled first term, as he rallied the country after the bombing that left 168 persons dead at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

While Herbert Hoover is remembered primarily for his lackluster response to the Great Depression, which led to his being swept out of the White House in 1932, he became president largely based on his widely praised leadership following the Mississippi River Flood of 1927. Hoover, a Stanford-trained engineer and mining executive, had come to national prominence for his work leading refugee relief during World War I and then in its aftermath, when President Woodrow Wilson put him at the head of America’s food-relief efforts. When the Mississippi River faced historic flooding in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge tapped Hoover, his commerce secretary, to lead the relief efforts as well as to come up with a way to prevent future flooding from overwhelming the levees along America’s longest waterway. Hoover ran for president the following year, and the self-styled “Great Engineer” easily won the Republican nomination and the presidency. He also had made disaster relief very much a federal responsibility. The ugly racism that marked much of the relief of the period, including black sharecroppers and even children being ordered to protect levees at gunpoint, was also part of the era.

It’s probably no accident that possible presidential contenders like Senator Ted Cruz, who ran against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and, at first, refused to endorse him, has immersed himself in storm relief and is offering none of the fiscal objections he waged against Superstorm Sandy relief in 2012, when he fought granting federal aid to the affected East Coast. Any presidential objectives that Texas Governor Greg Abbott might be nursing will surely be gauged by his response to Harvey. So far, the conservative Republican has sought to lower expectations, warning the residents of the nation’s second-most-populous state that this “new normal” will last and recovery will take years.