One of the iconic moments of former President George W. Bush’s many low points came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in August 2005. As the government’s bungled response was leading to deaths, widespread loss of property, and untold suffering, the president clapped his hand on the back of Michael Brown then-Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Within days, Brown had resigned in disgrace, but he left Washington with a few hard-learned lessons.
Today, watching President Trump tweet excuses, braggadocio, and attacks, as Hurricane Harvey threatens devastation upon Southwest Texas, he has urgent advice for Trump.
“Mr. President, please take these comments with an open mind. My comments are not meant to be critical,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Hill, understanding that the president’s short fuse is often ignited at the slightest critique. “I simply want to alert you to the human and political pitfalls when an administration faces a potentially major natural or manmade disaster and doesn’t realize the bully pulpit makes the difference between a successful response and, frankly, a politically devastating response.”
Brown went on to explain the responsibilities of the president in disasters, telling him that the government response will not manage itself and needs a strong leader to empower individuals and teams at every level. An extra challenge exists right now, Brown points out, because Trump has failed to fill key positions responsible for emergency response:
“Mr. President, [acting FEMA Director] Long needs you to step up to the bully pulpit.
“FEMA will need assistance from the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and others. Many of those departments and agencies do not have the political appointees to marshal the resources FEMA will need. Now is not the time to debate why many of those offices are vacant. Now is the time to realize they are vacant and step to the plate as Commander-in-Chief and rally your troops.”
In desperation to stop this president from repeating the mistakes of 12 years ago — or worse — Brown even made a naked appeal to Trump’s personal political ambitions:
“In a natural or manmade disaster, every minute of delay within the bureaucracy turns into hours and days of delay on the ground. Nothing is more frustrating — and deadly — than when a FEMA administrator has to fight through a bureaucratic jungle to get the resources needed from other departments and agencies. And if they’re on vacation, or there is no one in that policy or procurement office, you have a situation that can be deadly — literally and politically.”
Brown seems to understand that he is asking Trump to develop leadership qualities in a matter of hours where none previously existed. He is asking for a miracle. It may sound like a long shot, but in natural disasters such as Harvey, miracles are needed and they can happen.
Whatever our beliefs, let’s pray that Trump heeds Brown’s advice and pray for the people in the hurricane’s path.
Brown’s op-ed can be read at The Hill.
Sheila Norton is a writer with ten years of Capitol Hill experience. Subscribe to the OD Action email to get all the hottest news delivered right to your inbox every day at www.odaction.com