HURRICANE KATRINA taught officials who deal with natural disasters some hard lessons about how to prepare and respond to emergencies. The lesson that President Trump apparently learned is to proclaim victory no matter the reality.
"GREAT job in Puerto Rico," Mr. Trump tweeted Thursday. Large portions of the U.S. territory were without power. Drinking water and food were in short supply. Local officials were begging for help. The president's assessment seemed about as apt as President George W. Bush's memorable "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" in praise of the agency head who at the time was bungling the federal response to Katrina.
Now more than a week has passed since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, resulting in what the territory's governor called the "biggest catastrophe" in its modern history. At first, the White House seemed to be on top of the situation. The president called officials in the territory, quickly issued an emergency declaration and pledged that the people of Puerto Rico would get the help they needed. But as the extent of the devastation has become tragically apparent, so, too, have the administration's inadequate preparation and halting response.
While Mr. Trump was tweeting last weekend about football, with not a word about the plight of the 3.4 million Americans in Puerto Rico, there were pleas from Puerto Rican officials for broader government assistance, recommendations about the need to step up military involvement and calls to waive a century-old shipping law seen as impeding the relief efforts. The administration eventually did take those actions, dispatching the hospital ship USNS Comfort to Puerto Rico, temporarily waiving the Jones Act and on Thursday appointing a three-star general to coordinate the response.
Officials involved in past disaster responses were critical of the lack of urgency in the Puerto Rico response. Russel L. Honoré, the retired lieutenant general eventually appointed by Mr. Bush to improve the government's efforts after Hurricane Katrina, told the New York Times, "They need to scale up." Most telling was the comparison by Post reporters of the Puerto Rico response to the U.S. effort undertaken in 2010 when an earthquake hit Haiti. Within two days of Haiti's earthquake, there were 8,000 American troops en route to the island; eight days after Hurricane Maria, just 4,400 service members were participating in efforts in Puerto Rico.
Different disasters present different problems, and there is no minimizing the logistical challenges that hard-working rescue workers and beleaguered local officials face in trying to get Puerto Rico back on its feet in this humanitarian crisis. Whether they succeed will depend in large part on the help they get from the White House, not on its misguided spin.
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