When Donald Trump heads to Texas for his photo ops this week it is a completely selfish act. It is the same after every disaster and it reflects a real bifurcation between expertise on disasters and political expedience. Harvey is no different than Katrina or Sandy in that regard. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both had their pictures taken, and there are many lessons. Trump is aware of the clear lesson: stay away. He has even pledged to hold off until that trip can be made without causing disruption in the wake of the Hurricane, but he won’t wait.
Presidential visits can divert critical resources. Trump, for example, has maxed out the Secret Service budget for the year already. Security details are only part of it and, on the whole, such visits require significant logistical planning during normal events and times. In the wake of a disaster, however, resources for the visit are pulled from other details, sometimes life and death operations. George W. Bush identified mistakes he made, and he avoided visiting too early during the aftermath of Katrina because he didn’t want to cause disruptions. Barack Obama applied these lessons in the days following Sandy. Flyovers are effective, they don’t require the volume of resources, but they don’t produce the pictures. Politicians crave the boots-on-the-ground photo with the destruction in the background.
This is just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg. A Trump visit will likely pull money from relief efforts during the time when it is most needed. Houston is literally underwater and thousands are stranded. Every detail taken from rescue efforts could be thought of in terms of families saved; delays have real consequences. There are many human-caused details, the underfunding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is another unforgivable example. Trump wants to significantly cut funding. The adage an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure is very true in disasters, FEMA already has to divert funds and billion dollar disasters have increased 5 percent per year since 1980 but the budget has not.
Expertise on disaster management is very clear. The four most important, and controllable, details are the availability and mobilization of resources, the robustness of system strength, the redundancy of alternatives, and the rapidity of responses. Failure in any of these areas can have significant consequences. One example is the so-called snow-pocalypse that Atlanta experienced in January 2014. Two inches of snow rarely create total dysfunction, the $25 million in damages was only part of the problem, officials gambled and failed.
Another persistent truth, Atlanta 2014 or Houston 2017 or New Orleans 2005, is that disasters disproportionately impact the poor. This echoes my personal experience and observations of disasters in Sri Lanka and Haiti, but you’d expect better from a superpower than a Third World country. We place large, poor, populations in floodplains and tornado alleys without effective building practices. This is true in many U.S. cities. It is predictable, the property values are lower. Dams and other features of infrastructure do not receive the same allocations in poor areas and infrastructure is generally failing. This is entirely human error.
It is the same with evacuations, how many busloads do you imagine are needed to evacuate those without cars in the fourth largest U.S. city? The Texas Tribune reported the state had “41,000 shelter beds available for evacuees and more than 200 buses available to transport Texans out of coastal areas such as Corpus Christi.” With 2.3 million people in Houston alone, that almost helps 2 percent of the population — that isn’t even enough to help the unemployed families. It is clear and willful neglect.
The biggest problem continues to be human caused global warming. The trend in the increase in temperatures is the same as the science that predicted the eclipse millions of people recently enjoyed. There is virtually unanimous consensus, and the conclusions are clear. The frequency and intensity of these weather events will continue to increase. There is no ambiguity in the science: an increase in temperature causes an increase in water in the atmosphere, an increase in the sea surface temperature combined with increased atmospheric water equals stronger tropical storms.
The U.S. is strong and will weather storms but we need to let this be a wake-up call. Where the poorest are hurt the most, this is the global tendency as well. Countries like Bangladesh, which has a negligible impact on global greenhouse gas concentrations, increasingly struggles with the impacts global warming is having on rainfall patterns. They experience more sporadic, but intense, rainfall. This contributes to the almost annual occurrence of extreme flooding, but also drought conditions. What would have, historically, been light rain dropping 12 inches over a week now happens in an eight-hour monsoon. Record temperatures and arctic ice melt have not catalyzed enough of a response but something needs to. Some of the 30,000 children who die of starvation and malnutrition every day live in areas that were fully self sustaining in recent decades but haven’t survived the droughts induced by climate change.
Hurricanes are as predictable as presidential photo ops, and they both have warnings; Trump knows that he should stay at home, and we know that we are causing climate change. I have a feeling that we’ll see captions about the suit or Texas cowboy hat he wears in the photos long before we call these human-caused-disasters by name. If we don’t take responsibility things will only get worse.
Wim Laven, syndicated by PeaceVoice, worked on reconstruction in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, and is an instructor in International Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University.