Why Can't Republicans Deal With Hurricanes?
The quadrupling-down by President Trump on the ludicrous claim that easterly Hurricane Dorian was ever projected to threaten Alabama can be seen as another ludicrous episode in a ludicrous presidency. But there’s something about hurricanes that makes Republican politicians, not just Trump, lose their collective minds.
Trump, of course, is in a league of his own. He has treated Puerto Rico like a political enemy ever since it was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. When he toured North Carolina after 2018’s Hurricane Florence and met a man who a found a yacht had washed up behind his damaged house, he callously joked, “At least you got a nice boat out of the deal.”
But Trump is not the first Republican to treat hurricanes cavalierly. Some congressional Republicans have long been antagonistic toward allocating disaster relief after these devastating storms (unless it’s one that hit their own districts). These fiscal conservatives have couched their complaints to emergency appropriations as principled opposition to new deficit spending. But love of balanced budgets can’t really be the reason, since these same conservatives have rolled over as Trump increases spending and piles on more debt.
Past Republican presidents have failed to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency with requisite seriousness. George W. Bush infamously picked for FEMA’s director Michael Brown, a former official with the International Arabian Horse Association who had little disaster experience but good politician connections. When Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed FEMA in 2005, Bush feebly tried to buck up morale by saying to the agency’s leader in front of news cameras, with a glib Texas twang, “Brownie, you're doing a heckuva a job.”
Bush’s father also botched the response for Hurricane Andrew, which struck Florida in the summer before the 1992 election. Two weeks before the storm hit, a House Appropriations Committee investigation ripped the George H.W. Bush administration for treating FEMA like “a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment.” The FEMA director at that time, Wallace Stickney, was another politically connected bureaucrat with little disaster experience, and the report described him as “uninterested in the substantive programs of FEMA.”
Bill Clinton, reflecting on his visit to storm-ravaged Florida in his autobiography, “My Life,” wrote, “Traditionally, the job of FEMA director was given to a political supporter of the President who wanted some plum position but who had had no experience with emergencies. I made a mental note to avoid that mistake if I won. Voters don’t choose a president based on how he’ll handle disasters, but if they’re faced with one, it quickly becomes the most important issue in their lives.”
Sound advice. And there’s no reason why a Republican can’t take it.
Trump appears to have partially gotten that message. His first FEMA director, Brock Long, was previously the head of Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency, and performed admirably after 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. But Hurricane Maria was another matter entirely, and he resigned after being accused of using government vehicles for personal travel. For his next nomination, Trump stuck with experience, choosing to promote FEMA’s current associate administrator, Jeff Byard.
However, Byard was nominated seven months ago and still isn’t confirmed. There’s no scandal holding him up. The White House simply hasn’t put any pressure on the Senate to speed his confirmation. A similar lack of respect towards FEMA’s importance can be found in Trump’s decision to poach $155 million from FEMA’s disaster relief budget and give it to one of his favorite agencies: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (The Obama administration in August 2014 similarly took money from FEMA to help address an influx of refugees, including unaccompanied children, crossing the southern border. But Obama did so reluctantly after Congress did not act on his request for a border bill with new funding; Trump, on the other hand, got $4.6 billion from Congress two months ago specifically to help with the humanitarian crisis at the border.)
What explains this pattern of indifference toward disaster preparedness and response?
Again, it’s not fiscal conservatism. Republicans haven’t flinched when red ink is spilled by Trump or George W. Bush, so they have no ideological need to be stingy with FEMA.
It’s not raw politics. Trump may be singularly obnoxious toward Puerto Rico because there are no votes for him there. But hurricanes are a scourge of several Republican-friendly states in the southeast, including critical swing states Florida and North Carolina. There’s no political upside for Trump to be known for buffoonery during hurricane season.
Frankly, I don’t have a good answer to give you. It simply doesn’t make any sense. No matter your political party, your ideology, your degree of innate decency (or lack thereof), your political interest is served by hiring competent people to manage disaster responses and providing sufficient funds to ravaged communities in a timely fashion.
Democratic presidents have been able to pull it off. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama named emergency management professionals to lead FEMA. Both of those directors, James Lee Witt and Craig Fugate, served through the end of the second presidential terms and finished their tenures to positive reviews. There’s no reason Republicans can’t do the same, and it’s a mystery why they don't.