It has been nearly a week since Hurricane Maria devastated the US territory of Puerto Rico. It was the largest storm to hit the United States in nearly 90 years. Officials say that most of the island still doesn’t have drinkable water, and the entire population is without power. Puerto Rico’s governor warns of a coming humanitarian crisis unless more resources are immediately provided.
And where was Trump amid all this? The president issued one public statement in a tweet before the storm hit. After the hurricane, through Monday, he never addressed it at all, not even during a 90-minute political rally in Alabama on Friday night. During that time, he tweeted 17 times about the NFL, NBA, and NHL sports leagues and the associated controversy over the national anthem.
When Trump finally took to Twitter to address the island’s situation Monday night, he didn’t offer sympathy or share news about the response effort. Instead he tweeted that the territory already had “broken infrastructure & massive debt.”
By Tuesday morning, he’d shifted to a softer tone, promising that he was working hard and that food and water were on the way. But by then, it may have been too late.
The situation had already begun to echo another bungled storm response — that of then-President George W. Bush following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As the days passed after that storm and the devastation worsened, both local and federal officials were caught flat-footed and were blamed for the crisis that followed.
Bush, in particular, was lambasted for bungling the response and for being out of touch with the extent of the devastation — one iconic photo captured him surveying the damage from the window of Air Force One, instead of on the ground. Some believed it was Katrina, and not the Iraq war, that was Bush’s greatest blunder as president, and one he never fully recovered from.
Which brings us back to Trump. While the optics didn’t look good heading into Tuesday, the reality is that the administration was and continues to be actively responding.
Both the island’s governor and the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s largest city, have said there is a federal help on the ground. But they also say they need more help immediately. For example, while 1.5 million meals have been distributed, the island has 3.2 million people, many of them in need of assistance.
Trump, meanwhile, also announced on Tuesday that he will fly to Puerto Rico next week to personally view the damage caused by the storm. In announcing his trip, Trump told reporters that he has read reports that the island was “literally destroyed.”
“But these are great people they are wonderful people, hearty people. They’ll be back, but we are helping them,” Trump said. “I really think we are getting good marks for the work we are doing.”
So long as he keeps up this rhetoric and convinces Republicans to increase aid on the ground, Trump can avoid this becoming Katrina moment. And his impending visit to the island next week will offer an even bigger opportunity to prove his commitment to the US territory’s recovery.
But that’s assuming Trump can stay on message. When asked why he hadn’t devoted as much time over the weekend to the Puerto Rico disaster as to the football controversy, he had this to say: “To me the NFL situation is a very important situation. I’ve heard that before about whether was I preoccupied. Not at all. Not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work.”
A lot will also depend on how much coverage the US media gives to the aftermath there as well. A new Morning Consult poll showed that 54 percent of Americans didn’t even know that Puerto Rico residents were US citizens. Given that, it’s easy to see how people suffering on the familiar streets of New Orleans on the mainland United States back in 2005 would seem to carry more emotional resonance, and thus more political weight. Yet media coverage — particularly television imagines — could bring more urgency, and with it more public criticism or praise of the president’s response.
In the last 24 hours, Trump appears to finally, slowly, be learning the lessons of Katrina. But this came only after he came dangerously close to repeating the same mistakes that come with an ambivalent response. It will be a long road back for Puerto Rico’s residents and Trump must stay the course.James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics.