The wind and rain began lashing New Orleans in the early hours of Aug. 29, 2005, while President George W. Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Texas. As the levees buckled and water poured into the city, the federal government tarried. Later, Hurricane Katrina’s long pall — the more than 1,800 related deaths, the devastation and the slow federal response — would come to haunt Mr. Bush’s presidency, cratering his approval rating.
President Trump, who has overseen his own hurricane crisis after last year’s storms in Texas and Puerto Rico, has largely escaped the presidency-defining censure that dogged Mr. Bush after Hurricane Katrina. Last week, Puerto Rico’s government increased the island’s official death toll, estimating that 2,975 people died as a result of the hurricane and its effects — up from the tally of just 64 that had been the official count until then. Nearly one year after the storm hit, we now know that Hurricane Maria may be among the deadliest natural disasters to occur in the United States in a century.
So why the pass for President Trump?
Mr. Trump’s scandal-plagued presidency has benefited from a deliberate pattern of diversion and the deep executive dysfunction he has created in the federal government. Under his tenure, the president has given the impression it is not the White House’s job to coordinate with federal agencies and that by extension, he does not own his agencies’ failures. This shouldn’t stand.
The scope of the administration’s negligence is reflected in a report released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in July. FEMA said the agency “had thousands fewer workers than it needed” and that many of those it had weren’t qualified to take on a catastrophe of this scale. The report also states that the agency took longer than expected to secure supplies and lost track of much of the aid it delivered.
An investigation by Politico found that FEMA provided roughly a third of the meals, half as much water and a small fraction of tarps to Puerto Rico than it provided to Texas after Hurricane Harvey in the first nine days after the storm. Several weeks elapsed before FEMA and the Defense Department increased their presence on the island, even though airports and ports had reopened after a few days. The agencies failed to direct the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and other ships to Puerto Rico to aid with the response. Mr. Trump remained largely out of the picture.
No president in recent memory has upended internal executive branch norms so much. In immigration, military and other matters, major executive orders have been introduced by the Trump administration without consulting with his cabinet. Agency heads have been caught off guard when policies affecting them are put into motion. The robust interagency exchange that typically characterizes complex decisions has atrophied.
All of this makes it easy for Mr. Trump to escape blame for his agencies’ missteps. But this isn’t normal. In an unwieldy bureaucracy, pressure and high-level oversight from the White House ensure that disaster response does not fall by the wayside. Where agencies are ill-equipped to handle the on-the-ground devastation and local authorities cannot fill the void, presidential leadership assumes greater import.
The Trump administration has additionally taken actions that may set back Puerto Rico’s recovery. The funding request the White House sent to Congress last November drew condemnation from both Republicans and Democrats for being too low. The administration gave Puerto Rico little choice but to adopt an experimental funding formula to rebuild its public infrastructure. The formula gives Puerto Rico flexibility during the rebuilding process but requires the island to pay for any cost overruns, putting it at risk of being on the hook for costly receipts down the road. To make matters worse, last Thursday a federal judge ruled that Puerto Ricans who have been living in motels and hotels on the mainland as part of FEMA’s temporary housing aid after Hurricane Maria have to check out on Sept. 14, possibly rendering many of them homeless.
Going forward, Mr. Trump must ensure that his agencies focus attention and resources on the resilient, sustainable rebuilding of the outdated power grid and on restoration of the water infrastructure and health care system in Puerto Rico to buttress the island against future disasters. If not, it’s up to us, as fellow Americans, to hold him to task.
The image of Mr. Trump lobbing rolls of paper towels to a crowd last October in Puerto Rico, arms arched, mimicking a basketball player, should rank high in the pantheon of presidential slip-ups. It brings to mind another iconic image — Mr. Bush surveilling Hurricane Katrina’s wreckage in New Orleans, from Air Force One. Mr. Trump has defied many dogmas in politics. But the abnormal executive branch dynamics that he has created should not absolve him from responsibility for the grave humanitarian situation in Puerto Rico.
Mekela Panditharatne is a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.