Extraordinary crises are the acid test of presidential leadership. As I learned while managing the Obama administration’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, 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 Donald Trump’s tactless comments during his visit to San Juan last 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 that “you don’t need” the flashlights he was handing to them, and claimed Puerto Rico had not experienced a “real catastrophe, like Hurricane Katrina.”
As tone-deaf as Trump’s self-congratulations were, they reflect a much deeper problem than just a flawed communications strategy. His remarks 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.
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Consider the death toll. There have been multiple 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, which has been calling hospitals about mortality figures, estimates perhaps hundreds more deaths have 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 93 percent of the island remains without power. He appeared puzzled by the concept of water purification.
The federal government has seasoned and capable emergency managers. The federal responses to hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida were robust and effective. But Maria, like Katrina, has spawned a disaster that is anything but typical. The territory’s fragile infrastructure was highly vulnerable and suffered widespread damage. The logistical challenges of operating on an island make 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 1 1/2 months ago. The response strains the normal operating model, which is premised on capable state and local disaster authorities leading 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.
Situations like this, when the normal federal tools are overmatched by the complexity of the crisis, require attentive, disciplined and creative presidential leadership. Yet Trump did not hold a high-level meeting on the Puerto Rico response until six days after Maria made landfall. Absent a sense of urgency, what emerged has been a comparatively modest federal response.
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 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.
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 have yet to be reached with lifesaving aid deliveries. In the Philippines after the 2013 typhoon, the Defense Department conducted 1,300 air deliveries of aid supplies to 450 hard-to-reach sites in the first few weeks.
This is why presidential engagement is such a crucial variable. On every major operation I worked as USAID’s disaster response chief, The White House pressed my team to go big and do more, articulating a clear and ambitious vision for U.S. engagement, then backed us up to ensure we got needed resources. Nowhere was this more important than with the Ebola outbreak, another crisis where federal tools were initially overmatched amid a raft of simultaneous disasters.
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 increase in federal engagement finally appears to be accelerating as FEMA’s deployment expands and additional military assets arrive. The arrival of international relief organizations like Save the Children, Mercy Corps, and Oxfam (which jumped in to offset federal shortfalls) provides a helpful complement to federal efforts. Of course, Puerto Ricans 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.
Jeremy Konyndyk is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and teaches humanitarian field operations at Georgetown University.