There was a time not that long ago when U.S. presidents who ignored the consequences of devastating hurricanes on Americans, as well as the shortcomings of federal disaster assistance, could be embarrassed by their behavior. Less than two weeks after George W. Bush gave his infamous “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” to Michael D. Brown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast 13 years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency head had resigned. At least 1,245 people died as a result of the storm that FEMA, as well as local authorities, were clearly unprepared to handle.
Fast forward to President Donald Trump, who has a slightly different take on storm deaths. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, he called how his administration handled the estimated 2,975 people killed as a result of Hurricane Maria’s even more disastrous assault on Puerto Rico one year ago “an unappreciated great job.” In case anyone thought that this was just a slip of the tongue by President Trump, he doubled down on that view Thursday, tweeting how he believed the high mortality figure was phony and “done by Democrats” to “make me look as bad as possible.”
“If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list,” the president posted on his Twitter account, recalling that storm deaths were in the neighborhood of “6 to 18” when he visited the island.
What’s especially galling about Mr. Trump’s claim is not simply that none of it is true — that’s fairly routine stuff for this president — but that he so lacks basic human empathy. He is not merely capable of talking about what happened in Puerto Rico with pride, he is completely dismissive of a 9/11-scale death tally involving people who are also Americans, whether he’s willing to admit it or not. For the record, the storm-related death count from Maria is, indeed, an estimate, but an educated one. It was calculated by public health experts, not politicians, from George Washington University. It looked at mortality above and beyond what would have been normal on the island to take into account people harmed because they couldn’t get medical attention, food and water, or emergency care for the weeks and months after the storm hit.
That’s a pretty standard approach. If a storm strikes and you are killed by a falling branch or are swept out to sea, that’s clearly a death that’s storm related. But what about those who can’t get life-saving drugs or who suffer a heart attack for which there’s no hospital or doctor to treat you because of the storm? Those are storm-related deaths, too, but they take much longer to tally. It’s not unlike how a person can be shot but the bullet not take their life until months or years later — at which point the perpetrator can be charged with murder instead of just attempted murder.
President Bush’s “heckuva job” didn’t lead to his FEMA administrator’s dismissal simply because Katrina disaster relief was found wanting (although it clearly was) but because it reflected such a disinterest on the president’s part while people were still in harm’s way. That’s exactly President Trump in a nutshell. He considered the case closed the day after he was tossing rolls of paper towels to hurricane survivors in San Juan and then flew safely home while most island residents still lacked power, food and water. Those pleading for help like Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz? She’s is “totally incompetent,” as the president tweeted Wednesday.
Was Puerto Rico in an especially vulnerable position? Was its power grid in poor shape before Maria ever came near? Was its own disaster response found wanting? You can answer all three in the affirmative, but it does not change the fact that nearly 3,000 Americans died. Why did FEMA lose its administrator after that “heckuva job” crack when the Gulf Coast was in a vulnerable situation, too? Perhaps because those were the days before a shameless president could stick to his “alternative facts” and never concede to reality. How will FEMA deal with Hurricane Florence? It’s pretty clear that no matter what happens in the next few days, it’ll be regarded as an “A-plus” performance.