Donald Trump did what a president is supposed to do yesterday, visiting Corpus Christi for a briefing on hurricane relief efforts, talking up Texas and praising those on the front lines of the catastrophic flooding.
As a levee was breached, reservoirs overflowed and Harvey dumped more rain on the battered Houston region, the president and his FEMA director demonstrated that the feds are coordinating with state and local officials in trying to aid the tens of thousands of displaced residents. He even got up on a ladder between two fire trucks and told a crowd that “we are here to take care of you." In other words, he did his job.
That shouldn’t be surprising, especially since Trump has had to deal with water damage as a real estate developer who grew up helping to manage his father’s New York apartment buildings. But the New York Times said that while he has “a chance to reclaim the presidential high ground…many of those in the president’s orbit are worried Mr. Trump will not be self-controlled enough to maximize the moment.”
Even as Texans were being rescued by boats and helicopters, Twitter obsessed on Melania Trump, who walked with her husband to Marine One wearing stilettos. While an image consultant might have advised otherwise, she emerged in Texas in tennis shoes and a ballcap. That this is even worthy of attention while much of Houston is underwater shows the unyielding disdain that some critics have for the first couple.
Earlier, the president responded to criticism from one of his allies on “Fox & Friends”—on a subject that goes to the heart of the way he runs the government.
Laura Ingraham, the radio host and Fox News contributor, spoke about the hundreds of political appointee jobs that have not been filled.
"We only have had a FEMA director since June,” said Ingraham, who spoke at Trump’s convention. Invoking the hurricane, she said: "I think we can all look at these horrific pictures and we can conclude that a federal government does need staff. We see it acutely in need of staff in a situation like this…This isn’t the only crisis we’re facing. We’re also facing a huge crisis with North Korea."
Co-host Brian Kilmeade noted that 106 political appointees have been confirmed, 117 are awaiting Senate action and 366 positions do not have a nominee.
"This is a question that has to be posed to the administration,” Ingraham said.
The head of the administration, who regularly watches the Fox morning show, responded. “We are not looking to fill all of those positions. Don't need many of them - reduce size of government,” Trump tweeted.
Meanwhile, Politico reporter Michael Grunwald explores a fundamental question that also surfaced after Katrina: Do federal policies make flooding worse?
“Houston’s low-lying flatlands keep booming, as sprawling subdivisions and parking lots pave over the wetlands and pastures that used to soak up the area’s excess rainfall, which is how Houston managed to host three ‘500-year floods’ in the past three years,” he writes.
The reason: The federal flood insurance program (now $25 billion in the red) encourages people to keep building there. One home in Houston had flooded 16 times in 18 years, netting its owner $800,000 even though it was appraised at around $115,000, according to a report, which said Houston has more than half the country’s worst “repetitive loss properties.”
"All seven of the billion-dollar floods in American history have made landfall in the 21st century, and Harvey will be the eighth. Experts believe the main culprit is the explosive growth of low-lying riverine and coastal development, which has had the double effect of increasing floods (by replacing prairies and other natural sponges that hold water with pavement that deflects water) while moving more property into the path of those floods.”
That’s something to examine in the future. A more imminent challenge is passing a federal disaster package for Texas that will cost many billions of dollars.
Texas Republican lawmakers, including Ted Cruz, have been taking heat for having voted against an aid package after Hurricane Sandy that would primarily have benefited New Jersey and New York.
Cruz defended his position on MSNBC, saying, “There is a time for political sniping later.”
Pressed by anchor Katy Tur, the senator said he supported Sandy relief but that the final bill became filled with “unrelated pork…Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy…It’s not right for politicians to exploit a disaster and people who are hurting to pay for their own political wish list.”
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave Cruz’s claim three Pinnochios, saying: “The Congressional Research Service issued a comprehensive report on the provisions, and it’s clear that virtually all of it was related to the damage caused by Sandy. There may have been some pork in an earlier Senate version, but many of those items were removed before final passage."
Still, given the magnitude of the disaster in the Houston region, Cruz is right about one thing: Now is not the time for political sniping. While journalists can raise important questions, our focus should be on the staggering challenge of rescuing and sheltering people during this catastrophic flooding.