Why Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Should Brace for Hurricane Matthew

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President George W. Bush boards Air Force One after speaking about Hurricane Katrina's damage on network television from Jackson Square in New Orleans, September 15, 2005. Larry Downing/Reuters

Hurricanes mean high winds, storm surges and destruction. Political damage also is often left in their wake, something both the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns are aware of as Hurricane Matthew pushes into Florida and the southeastern United States.

The Clinton campaign on Thursday afternoon announced it was refraining from buying ads on The Weather Channel during the storm, a change in course after it received drenching criticism for planning to do so. It's not that both campaigns haven't bought ads on the all-weather station before, but some thought doing so during a storm seemed exploitative. A former Jeb Bush press secretary, Kristy Campbell, called it "an unforced error" sure to anger Floridians.

Of course, Sunday night is the second presidential debate. By then the extent of the storm's initial damage may be known, although many of the deaths and injuries that occur during a storm are discovered after its passing. The levees in New Orleans broke after Hurricane Katrina, and while such flooding seems all but impossible this time, injuries from carbon monoxide generators and loss of power, especially for the poor and elderly, could continue for weeks—all as voting is well under way in most of the country.

Both candidates will need to address the storm during their debate, and will need to convey a sense that they could handle such a disaster. But doing so in a way that seems empathetic instead of pandering isn't necessarily easy.

Clinton certainly understands the importance of disaster relief, having been the junior senator from New York on 9/11 and a leader in fighting for aid for the region as well as for health benefits for first responders. As a first lady in Arkansas and Washington, she saw numerous other relief efforts after floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and the like. Trump played no visible role during 9/11 but at least seems aware of the optics: He visited Baton Rouge over the summer to help with the Louisiana capital's flooding.

Disasters can shape and ruin political careers. Herbert Hoover became president largely because of his reputation for leading relief efforts after World War I, and especially after the 1927 Mississippi River flood that made him a household name. (African Americans were brutally treated during the flood, with hundreds of thousands displaced and many ending up in virtual enslavement in refugee and work camps.)

In 2005, Katrina devastated New Orleans and contributed substantially to the collapse of George W. Bush's presidency. It remains the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, costing more than $100 billion, and covered 90,000 square miles, the size of the United Kingdom. The loss of close to 2,000 lives, mostly in New Orleans, was devastating enough, but the images of stranded residents next to the White House's initially rosy account of the federal response doomed Bush less than a year after his re-election. His popularity rating fell below 45 percent following Katrina and never recovered. The view that the country was on the wrong track hit 60 percent and climbed higher, and the remaining initiatives of his administration, including immigration and tax reform, went nowhere. The enduring image of Bush aboard Air Force One looking down at the flooding became an object lesson in how a politician should not respond to a disaster.

W. should have known better: His father was beaten up by a hurricane in 1992, when Andrew slammed into South Florida during the presidential race. The slow response of the federal government caught George H.W. Bush flat-footed as residents and local officials complained about FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Where the hell is the cavalry on this one," said the Dade County chief executive at the time. FEMA had also been graded poorly for its response to the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Hugo. The agency had been slow to turn its attention to real-life disasters from preparations for managing the aftermath of a nuclear war—something that seemed far less likely after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Making matters works, FEM wasn't always staffed with the best and the brightest.

A congressional report found: that FEMA "is widely viewed as a political `dumping ground ,` a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment." Despite that warning, Bush treated the FEMA job with less than critical concern. His FEMA administrator during Katrina, Michael Brown , was head of the International Arabian Horse Association before taking over the critical agency. Bush's compliment to him—"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job"—may be one of the most cringeworthy lines in American politics.

Bill Clinton and Jeb Bush seemed to understand the political perils of slow disaster response. As governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, Jeb Bush was applauded for his handling of the storms that ravaged the Sunshine State. Much of the credit went to Craig Fugate, who was appointed to be Bush's point man on emergency management. It's telling that Obama tapped Fugate to run FEMA.

As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton too understood the importance of handling emergencies. He did well at handling tornados, a common calamity in the state as opposed to hurricanes. But he was also driven out of the governor's mansion in 1980 after his failure to control the rioting of Cuban refugees at a camp in Arkansas following the Mariel Boatlift that brought waves of migrants to America. As president, Clinton appointed James Lee Witt to the FEMA post and elevated the job to cabinet rank. Witt was widely acclaimed for revamping the agency and, incredibly, he was the first head of FEMA with an emergency management background.

George W. Bush was handed a FEMA that worked but had poor morale. The ousting of some of Witt's best hires, like a No. 2 who had been head of the Secret Service, led to the agency's becoming a shell of itself by the time Katrina hit. Politicians can help make the conditions right for dealing with natural disasters, or they can screw it up. This is as true for mayors who lose their jobs because of lousy snow removal as it is for commanders in chief.