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Here’s when Trump’s response to Hurricane Harvey will really matter

Whatever he says while it’s still unfolding matters far less than what he does in the coming weeks.

A car lies submerged after Hurricane Harvey hit Corpus Christi, Texas on August 26.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Hurricane Harvey is pummeling Texas with one of the worst storms in recent American history this weekend, threatening businesses, homes, and lives with catastrophic flooding and storm surge. For many Americans, one question looms: How will President Trump, whose administration has been engulfed in chaos since Day One, manage it?

I study emergency management, and I’ve begun to assess the same question, placing this White House in a long history of presidential response to disasters.

Major natural disasters often last just moments or days, but the recovery can take years. The test of leadership is not measured in tweets, but in the tedium of making government resources work on behalf of people suffering.

Despite the limited operational role of the president, a disaster response is their responsibility in the eyes of the public, and they typically use it to demonstrate leadership, compassion, and clear communication.

On Friday night, when a reporter asked him for a message for Texas, he replied, “Good luck to everybody.” Which certainly does not inspire much confidence in his ability to take this seriously.

But whatever Trump says or does with regard to the hurricane while it’s still unfolding matters far less than what he says or does in the coming weeks. It’s the recovery where his leadership will matter most.

It’ll be tempting to gauge Trump by his social media impact. But the real test is in his work over the long haul. Here are five things to watch for to see how well he’s responding as a president.

1) Giving Texas the initial resources it will need

Hurricane Harvey is not a surprising disaster. A Category 4 storm hitting the Texas coast is a well-considered scenario. Every indication suggests state and local resources will be overwhelmed and this will be a major disaster requiring extensive federal resources.

On Friday night, Trump signed the Presidential Disaster Declaration, per the request of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, opening up access to federal resources. Over the next few days we should expect to see regular updates from the White House, in coordination with FEMA, about the status of response efforts including evacuations, sheltering, search and rescue, and significant damages.

Trump has completed the most important job he has for right now, signing the Texas declaration. During a disaster, at the request of the governor and recommendation from FEMA, the president can declare a disaster under the Stafford Act. Doing so opens up federal resources and aid to assist state and local governments.

Traditionally the president uses their platform to emphasize important lifesaving information and direct attention towards state and local officials. Then we’d expect to see a visit from the president to the coast, regular updates from federal agencies about the status of recovery, and discussion of how the federal government will financially contribute to recovery efforts.

2) Who’s in charge of FEMA

The person who is arguably more important at a federal level during the response to a disaster is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator. Currently, unlike several other federal agencies, FEMA is staffed and has a qualified administrator, Brock Long. Long was appointed by Trump in April and confirmed in June. He has an extensive background in emergency management and, because he comes from Alabama, experience with hurricanes. The general consensus is the Long is a respectable choice.

The importance of appointing an individual with actual emergency management was made clear during Katrina when FEMA was led by Michael Brown, who had no emergency management experience. Since 2005, presidents, including Trump, have made sure that the FEMA administrator is qualified. FEMA in 2017 is very different from FEMA in 2005, thanks in large part to efforts taken during the Obama administration.

Judging from the public communication put out by FEMA so far it seems that they are operating in a way that is similar to how they would have operated during a response under Obama.

3) Listening to advisors

Despite the limited operational role of the president, a disaster response easily becomes their responsibility, and they typically use their role to demonstrate leadership, compassion, and clear communication. There is certainly something to be said to turn on your TV and see the president assuring us that the full resources of the United States government are addressing the disaster.

Bush was largely praised for his leadership in the days immediately following 9/11. A few years later his leadership came under fire with the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee failure. Both disasters ended with major policy changes that reshaped emergency management across the country.

In responding to the many disasters during his tenure — such as Ebola, the BP oil disaster, and Superstorm Sandy — Obama committed to listening to his advisors and providing them with the resources they needed to respond. Response and recovery rarely, if ever, go perfectly. But the Obama administration certainly made an effort to analyze mistakes and do better next time. Nonetheless there were criticisms made related to optics — for instance when he went on vacation during the 2016 Louisiana floods.

4) Most emergency management is independent from the president

Despite concerns about the federal government it is worth remembering that the majority of disaster response occurs at the state and local levels. Most of the emergency management system operates independently from the president and even the federal government during response.

They are the ones closest to the disaster, they have the most information about the disaster, and the understand the needs of the community. Survivors are rarely helpless during disasters. They self-organize, form groups, and improvise throughout the response and recovery to address their needs.

Some actions taken by Trump today are unusual compared to previous presidents. On Friday he tweeted a video of his tour of FEMA headquarters earlier this month that said, “The U.S.A is the most resilient nation on earth, because we plan ahead. Preparedness is an investment in our future!” (That certainly contradicts his policy actions and budget proposals since taking office.) And then there was the “good luck” tweet on Friday.

5) Preparing for the next disaster

The majority of the work of emergency management happens long before a disaster happens and in the years after a disaster occurs. This is where the president can provide have influence. The president shapes the national vision for emergency management, assures funding for emergency management, and is responsible for appointing competent officials.

After a disaster occurs, the actions of the president on these issues are what come under public scrutiny and even congressional investigations. President Obama and his FEMA administrator Craig Fugate were well-aware of this and undertook many efforts to better prepare the country for disaster.

Unfortunately for Texas, it is too late for mitigation and preparedness efforts that must happen well in advance of a disaster. There is still time, however, for the administration to undertake efforts to increase our national preparedness and assist communities in implementing mitigation efforts so that the next hurricane response is more effective and efficient.

In Texas, the administration will have more influence over the recovery process. Disaster recovery is notoriously challenging even for administrations that are well organized, staffed, and excel at communicating. While FEMA is the agency most central to emergency management, a plethora of federal agencies have roles and responsibilities. It would inspire confidence in the ability of the federal government to assist in recovery efforts if we saw good communication, organization, vision, and filled positions across the federal government. That’s what we need from Trump.

The actions of the President can most definitely negatively influence emergency management. This lesson was painfully learned during Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee failure. As a general rule, it’s not good to go into any crisis, including a major hurricane with a federal government in turmoil.

Dr. Samantha Montano has a doctoral degree in emergency management. She blogs at www.disaster-ology.com and can be reached on twitter @SamLMontano

If you would like to donate to the recovery, she recommends Foundation Beyond Belief and All Hands .