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…