Twenty-five years ago almost to the day, President George H.W. Bush visited South Florida to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, the massive storm that killed dozens of people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes in late August 1992.
After touring the storm-ravaged neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County, Bush met with victims, local officials and emergency crews on the ground. With rolled-up sleeves and sweat dripping down his face, he praised their resilience in the wake of the disaster and promised them the nation’s support. “Whatever it takes, whatever it takes,” he said. “The capacity of one American to help another, that’s the message I get loud and clear.”
President Bill Clinton struck a similar tone years later when he visited tornado victims and first responders in Oklahoma, telling them that they represented “what is very best in this country, the way you have reacted to this.”
When President George W. Bush arrived in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he offered victims a personal message — one they needed to hear given his administration’s infamously slow and inept response to the storm. “To all who carry a burden of loss,” he said, “I extend the deepest sympathy of our country.”
And when President Barack Obama spoke from a beachside town in New Jersey that was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, he told residents much the same. “We are here for you,” he said, “and we will not forget.”
Little of that high-minded rhetoric was on display Tuesday when President Trump visited Texas to discuss the devastation from Hurricane Harvey. Trump, who ran on a promise of being a different kind of president, once again kept that promise.
He made virtually no mention of the storm’s victims, and there was no indication he met with any. He didn’t call for donations or volunteers. He didn’t mourn the dead.
Instead, Trump marveled at the size of Harvey (“it’s epic, what happened”), gushed about the crowd that had gathered to see him (“what a turnout”), offered hyperbole about the recovery effort (it will be “something very special”), and thanked his Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator (“a man who has really become very famous on television over the last couple of days”).
At one point he told a crowd in Corpus Christi — some carrying Trump regalia and chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.” — that “we are here to take care of you, it’s going well.” And he added later that “Texas can handle anything.”
But that was about as empathetic as he got. There was no call to action, no sweeping reassurance that his administration — and indeed, the nation — had adopted the storm victims’ struggle as its own. All told, it felt a bit like a political rally, as The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson reported.
An array of political observers and others said Trump’s message was weak and tone deaf considering the immense scale of Harvey’s destruction.
“There was something missing from what President Trump said … the empathy for the people who suffer,” former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said Tuesday on Fox News. “That, with my opinion, should’ve been the first thing he should’ve said was that his heart goes out to those people in Houston who are going through this and that the government is here to help them to recover from this.”
Indeed, Trump’s remarks in Texas bore little resemblance to what his predecessors have said after touching down at the scenes of natural disasters. During their terms, the past four presidents have, if anything, gone out of their way to focus on the human toll. Here’s a sampling.
George H.W. Bush
President George H.W. Bush made two trips to Gulf Coast states in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which smashed through the region at the end of August 1992. About a week after the storm passed, he took a predawn flight to South Florida, the area hit worst, and got a ground-level view of the wreckage.
During a scripted visit to a ruined shopping center, he recounted stories about the heroic work by locals during the storm, as a local ABC affiliate reported at the time.
“When a portion of the roof collapsed on a Red Cross shelter, volunteers braved the wind and pounding rain to move the victims to a safer place,” he said, standing amid the rubble. “When disaster struck, migrant workers bare-chested and exhausted walked miles to carry babies to safety.”
He also dropped in on a kitchen set up by the U.S. Army at a middle school in Hempstead, Fla., and visited a tent city housing people displaced by the storm, according to UPI. Speaking in the sweltering late-summer heat, he told a crowd of local residents, officials and camera crews that the federal government would do “whatever it takes” to assist them.
“It is a moving and wonderful message that’s going forth to the whole country, whether it’s from military or state officials, from local officials or from the volunteers, the capacity of one American to help another,” he said. “That’s the message I get loud and clear.”
That night, he returned to Washington, where he gave a five-minute nationally televised speech from the Oval Office. He spoke of the “generous spirit of the American people” and called on the nation to donate supplies and volunteer for the recovery effort.
“This is a tribute to what is inside us,” Bush said. “And yes, Andrew blew a whirlwind of devastation. But he could never extinguish the American spirit, a spirit of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
In early May 1999, more than 70 tornadoes tore through Oklahoma over the course of a week, shredding more than 6,000 homes and killing more than 40 people. President Bill Clinton quickly traveled to the state and took a walking tour of Del City, a suburb of Oklahoma City where 36 people were killed.
After the tour, Clinton addressed the victims, thanking them for their perseverance in the face of tremendous pain.
“I came into this neighborhood today, and I saw all these American flags sticking up, all the people rooting around in the rubble of their houses, looking for those family photos and the marriage licenses and the other records of family life, but with a strong spirit,” Clinton said. “It was profoundly moving to me.”
“And I want to say that our hearts go out to those who have lost so much and, obviously, especially to the families of those people who lost their lives,” he continued. “But we also thank you for setting an example of what is very best in this country, the way you have reacted to this.”
“Again, I’m sorry,” he said. “Our hearts are with you. We’ll be with you throughout the rebuilding. But thank you — thank you for once again showing the whole country what is best about America.”
George W. Bush
President George W. Bush faced the nation’s largest recent natural disaster when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, breaching several levees in New Orleans and flooding about 75 percent of the city. The storm killed at least 1,800 people.
While many argue the Bush administration’s response to the hurricane was deeply flawed — from FEMA not sending nearly enough supplies to the government leaving many victims stranded in stagnant waters for days — the president struck a graceful and empathetic tone in his address to the nation on Sept. 15, 2005, which he gave from Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter.
He placed the victims in the forefront. “These days of sorrow and outrage have also been marked by acts of courage and kindness that make all Americans proud,” he said.
Bush told the stories of doctors who went days without food so that their patients could eat and a homeowner who invited in two men who attempted to break into his house because they had nowhere to go.
“Tonight so many victims of the hurricane and the flood are far from home and friends and familiar things,” Bush said. “You need to know that our whole nation cares about you, and in the journey ahead you are not alone. To all who carry a burden of loss, I extend the deepest sympathy of our country.”
Bush concluded his speech with firsthand knowledge of the people who were suffering by referencing a New Orleans tradition.
“In this place, there is a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful ‘second line’ — symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge — yet we will live to see the second line.”
When it made landfall near Atlantic City on Oct. 29, 2012, Sandy proved not only devastating for part of the East Coast, causing $65 billion in damage and killing 159 people, but politically significant as well. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, was blasted by fellow Republicans for praising the Obama administration’s response to the storm.
President Barack Obama nevertheless struck a chord of togetherness in his speech in the coastal town Brigantine, N.J., two days after the storm ripped through the area.
After thanking the first responders — reminding everyone that their houses were also flooded, their families also affected — he, like President George W. Bush before him, addressed the storm’s victims.
“We need to make sure that everybody who has lost a loved one knows they’re in our thoughts and prayers — and I speak for the whole country there,” he said, before turning to recovery.
“For those like the people I just had the chance to meet on this block and throughout New Jersey and throughout the region whose lives have been upended, my second message is we are here for you, and we will not forget,” Obama said. “We will follow up to make sure that you get all the help that you need until you’ve rebuilt.”
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