Extraordinary crises are the acid test of presidential leadership.
As I learned while managing the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, a president’s personal engagement is the indispensable variable in ensuring a fully engaged federal crisis response. In the face of unusually complex and devastating emergencies, the federal government must transcend business-as-usual, mounting the sort of massive whole-of-government effort that only the president can fully mobilize. What the nation has witnessed in Puerto Rico over the past two weeks sadly demonstrates the inverse: the shortfalls that emerge when a president leaves a major federal disaster response on autopilot.
President Trump’s tactless comments during his visit to San Juan this week provide a good microcosm of the larger issue. Trump repeatedly downplayed the severity of the crisis; described his administration’s response as “incredible” and “unbelievable”; praised the then-official death toll of 16 as something Puerto Ricans “can be very proud of”; told disaster survivors at a distribution site “you don’t need” the flashlights he was handing to them; and claimed Puerto Rico had not experienced a “real catastrophe, like Hurricane Katrina.” Those remarks followed other comments from Trump and his senior advisers who have characterized the federal response as “amazing,” and “a good news story.”
As tone-deaf as Trump’s self-congratulations were, they reflect a much deeper problem than just a flawed communications strategy. The president’s remarks in Puerto Rico were factually wrong in ways that raise serious questions about whether he grasps the depth of the crisis — and whether he truly has a handle on the federal response.
Consider the death toll. There have been multiple public reports that the official count (now at least 34) remains artificially low due to the breakdowns of communications and public administration on the island. The Center for Investigative Journalism in San Juan has been calling hospitals to inquire about mortality figures in areas they serve, and the nonprofit news organization estimates dozens and perhaps hundreds more deaths have occurred but not yet been documented. Trump’s advisers, who include people with considerable disaster response experience, surely understand the death toll will rise. Yet the president seemed unaware.
He seemed equally unaware that, his flashlights comment notwithstanding, 93 percent of the island remains without power. He appeared puzzled by the concept of water purification. While Katrina did have a higher death toll than the initial count from Maria, the devastation in Puerto Rico is affecting a population seven times that of pre-storm New Orleans and looks likely to take far longer to address. It is a “real” catastrophe, indeed.
There is no way to generously spin the president’s comments; he appears to have a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the seriousness of this crisis. Whether he is getting poor information or simply ignoring his briefings, this is a critical handicap to the federal response effort.
In a more standard disaster event, that might not be such a big deal. The federal government has seasoned and capable emergency managers who can, in the face of a typical disaster, mount an effective response even without close presidential involvement. The federal responses to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, for example, were robust and effective. However, Hurricane Maria — like Katrina — has spawned a disaster that is anything but typical.
Puerto Rico’s crisis poses major difficulties for disaster responders. The territory’s fragile infrastructure was highly vulnerable and suffered widespread damage. The logistical challenges of operating in an island setting make pre-storm evacuation impossible and slow down post-storm relief. Maria struck at a time when the Federal Emergency Management Agency is uniquely overstretched, having been on a round-the-clock operational tempo since Harvey struck Texas a month and a half ago. The response strains FEMA’s normal operating model, which is premised on capable state and local disaster authorities leading most of the initial front-line response. FEMA has lacked that in Puerto Rico, in part because so many local officials were themselves caught in the disaster. So federal officials have instead had to play much more of a lead role, something FEMA is not accustomed to doing.
Situations like this, when the normal federal tools are overmatched by the complexity of the crisis, require attentive, disciplined and creative presidential leadership. Yet in the critical early days of the response, Trump focused his attention elsewhere. He tweeted repeatedly about the NFL immediately after the storm, yet did not hold a high-level meeting on the Puerto Rico response until six days after Maria made landfall. In the absence of a sense of urgency from the White House, what emerged from his administration has been a comparatively modest federal response.
Consider the numbers. The level of personnel deployed was initially low, and at 14,000 still remains lower than the levels deployed for Harvey (31,000) or Irma (40,000) despite considerably more comprehensive damage. The military deployment has been similarly restrained. Fewer air assets were initially deployed to Puerto Rico — nine helicopters and airplanes — than the 11 the United States deployed to the 2016 Hurricane Matthew response in Haiti or the 66 deployed after the 2013 super-typhoon in the Philippines. Even with additional deployments finally bringing air assets to around 80 in the coming days, the Defense Department’s level of engagement remains dramatically smaller than the 22,000 troops, 33 ships and 300 aircraft deployed to support the 2010 Haiti earthquake response.
The size and ambition of this federal deployment in turn directly shapes what is possible. One telling example: As the response enters its third week, road blockages and trucking shortfalls continue to impede last-mile distribution from reaching all of the island. Many badly affected areas in the interior are yet to be reached with lifesaving aid deliveries.
There is no reason this should be such an obstacle. In the international disaster responses I led in places like Haiti, the Philippines and Nepal, the U.S. government circumvented overland delivery blockages during the initial phase by relying on military airlifts. In the Philippines after the 2013 typhoon, for example, the Defense Department conducted 1,300 air deliveries of aid supplies to 450 hard-to-reach sites in the first few weeks. In Puerto Rico, the anemic early deployment of military air assets did not enable a similarly robust operation.
This is why presidential engagement is such a crucial variable. On every major operation I worked as USAID’s disaster response chief, close attention from former president Barack Obama on down helped ensure rapid mobilization and tightly choreographed federal execution. The White House pressed my team to go big and do more, articulating a clear and ambitious vision for U.S. engagement — then backing us up to make sure we got the resources we needed. Nowhere was this more important than with the Ebola outbreak, another crisis where federal tools were initially overmatched amid a raft of simultaneous disasters. Rather than accept the government was doing all it reasonably could, Obama pressed us to do the unreasonable — to be creative, to stretch ourselves, to pull on resources we would not normally have access to. His engagement pushed my team, and the rest of the federal system, to step up in unorthodox ways. Without that hands-on leadership, we would not have succeeded.
Trump’s tweets and offhand comments are not just empty rhetoric; they are signals to the federal workforce on how to prioritize across competing crises. The president’s early assertions the response was on track were a signal to maintain course, rather than go all-out to amplify federal engagement. Comments about high recovery costs in Puerto Rico discourage a frank conversation on what resources are needed. The management culture the president fosters determines whether his subordinates will give him straight assessments of the situation, or spin things to look rosier than they are. A White House culture that produces a “dear leader” Cabinet meeting makes it actively difficult for government officials to tell the president the response is off course, or his inflammatory public comments are hindering their efforts.
The sluggish ramp-up of federal engagement does finally appear to be accelerating, as FEMA’s deployment expands and additional military assets arrive on the scene. The arrival of international relief organizations like Save the Children, Mercy Corps, and Oxfam (who jumped in to offset federal shortfalls) is providing a helpful complement to federal efforts. Of course, the people of Puerto Rico are working tirelessly to do everything they can within their own communities. Things will, eventually get on track.
But an inescapable takeaway of the past few weeks is how little Trump seems to recognize or care that his own handling of the situation hampered the response. This should worry every American. For Puerto Rico is unlikely to be the only — or the worst — major crisis this president will face.