COMPASSION and competence are not President Donald Trump’s strong suits. But since Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a category four hurricane near Rockport, Texas, on August 26th, Mr Trump has done his best to empathise with south-eastern Texans struck by unprecedented life-threatening flooding, promising two visits to the affected areas this week. He also appears to be trying to help as effectively as possible. Over the weekend he frequently communicated with William “Brock” Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And on August 28th he vowed to push a major recovery package through Congress.
On August 29th, Mr Trump visited Corpus Christi, a town on the Gulf of Mexico that suffered relatively light damage. It seemed wise to avoid disrupting relief efforts in harder-hit Houston with presidential motorcades. Donning a white baseball cap emblazoned with USA in black letters, a rain jacket and mountain boots, Mr Trump, his wife Melania and Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, as well as Texas senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn sat down with local leaders at a fire station for a briefing on disaster-relief efforts. “We want to do it better than ever before,” said Mr Trump. “We want to be looked at in five years, in ten years from now as, this is the way to do it.”
Local reports suggested that he had indeed succeeded in raising the morale of many Texans affected by the hurricane and subsequent floods. But the president nonetheless seemed unable to resist putting himself centre stage during his brief trip. As he exited the fire station, the president noticed a crowd of about 1,000 people, some of them cheering. As if it were a campaign rally, he grabbed a Lone Star flag of Texas and shouted “what a crowd, what a turnout!”
The devastation of Hurricane Harvey is drawing comparisons with Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans 12 years ago, killing more than 1,800 mostly poor and black people. Mr Trump is keen to avoid the mistakes of George W. Bush who seemed detached in his reaction and whose administration was widely criticised for its slow and ineffective response to the catastrophe. Mr Bush viewed the devastation of New Orleans from the window of Air Force One to avoid disrupting relief efforts; this came across as unwillingness to get involved on the ground. And he prematurely praised Michael Brown, his boss of FEMA, (“Brownie, you are doing a heck of a job”). Mr Brown turned out to be unprepared and overwhelmed by the task at hand.
On August 29th, Mr Long, the current FEMA boss, said: “This is not the Superdome,” an allusion to the dangerous and unhygienic conditions at a sports arena in New Orleans that became a shelter after Katrina struck. More than 9,000 people are currently seeking shelter at a convention centre in Houston after being plucked from rooftops by helicopters or rescued by volunteers in boats. The centre had initially been set up with 5,000 cots, but the Red Cross says no one will be turned away.
After the briefing in Corpus Christi, Mr Trump and his entourage headed to Austin, the Texan state capital. He toured an emergency management centre and praised the agencies for working together. The president sounded an unusual note of caution. “The sad thing is that this is long-term,” said Mr Trump. “Nobody’s ever seen anything this long, and nobody’s ever seen this much water in particular”. He repeated that he will go to Congress to get relief for Texas. “Probably, there has never been anything so expensive in our country’s history,” he said. “There has never been anything so historic in terms of damage and in term of ferocity as what we have witnessed with Harvey”.
Mr Trump’s budget proposal includes steep cuts of FEMA funding and other programmes to prepare for disasters. Earlier this month he rolled back an executive order, signed by Barack Obama, which requires stricter building standards for federally-funded infrastructure projects in areas that are prone to flooding. Faced with a catastrophe of such epic proportions Mr Trump would be wise to reconsider these policies and his decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord. Judging by past policy behaviour patterns, however, he is more likely to focus on short-term relief for Texas—and on the optics of his efforts.