“You are special!” President Donald Trump said, to the thousand or so people who had gathered on Tuesday morning outside a firehouse in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he was meeting with officials, including Governor Greg Abbott, Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and several members of the Texas congressional delegation. The rain brought in by Hurricane—now Tropical Storm—Harvey, was still falling in Houston; as Trump spoke, the level crept up toward fifty inches, and past the record for the continental United States, set forty years ago; before nightfall, it would pass fifty-one inches. The Washington Post quoted experts who estimated that the amount of water dumped on the city and the surrounding area was “nearly nineteen times the daily discharge of the Mississippi.” Hundreds of thousands of people may lose their homes; only about a fifth of the households in Houston have flood insurance. By Tuesday evening, thirty per cent of Harris County was underwater. But President Trump had a different metric in mind: “What a crowd, what a turnout!” he said, standing on a truck outside the firehouse. Then someone handed him a Texas state flag, and he waved it.
The problem is not that President Trump does not realize that Harvey is huge; a number of his tweets on the storm have contained the word “Wow,” and he called it “epic” and “historic,” adding that “Texas can handle anything!” But the enormity of the situation does not seem to have organized his thoughts beyond declarations of how it will be matched by the greatness of his Administration and its allies. On the flight to Texas, on Tuesday morning, he had retweeted a message from Brazoria County, which consisted of a red box containing the words “NOTICE: The Levee at Columbia Lakes has been breached!! GET OUT NOW!!” Get out to where? What are the practical consequences of a breach? Trump didn’t say. (Vox has a more technical breakdown of the levee situation.)
In Corpus Christie, speaking to Governor Abbott, Trump began by acknowledging that it wasn’t time for congratulations, but offered a prediction that Houston would soon be better than ever: “We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.” Later in the day, at a briefing at a control center in Austin, he said that his team’s coördination had been “incredible—everybody’s talking about it,” then offered this observation on the challenge that they faced: “Nobody has ever seen this much water. . . . The water has never been seen like this, to this, to the extent. And it’s, uh, maybe someday going to disappear. We keep waiting!” Trump had recognized the magnitude of the moment, at least as a news story, even before Harvey made landfall; on Monday, when he was asked why he had chosen that time to announce his pardon of Joe Arpaio, the disgraced former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Trump said, “Actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”
Several Cabinet secretaries, including Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, joined Trump on the flight to Texas, as did the First Lady. (The President wore a jacket built for rain; Melania Trump looked ready for a high-end safari. Many observers were puzzled by her choice of footwear—achingly high stilettos—but she had changed them by the time the plane landed.) The group did not go to Houston, citing the logistical needs of the city. Trump might have had a better view of the flood waters on television, but, Governor Abbott said, “We want him to see and understand.”
What will be harder is persuading not only Trump but the Republican Party that Harvey has a reality that reaches beyond the borders of this storm, and involves major policy issues. Both Senators Cruz and Cornyn voted against a major emergency-relief bill allocating funds for rebuilding and recovery after Superstorm Sandy. Cruz, in particular, has misrepresented that bill’s contents and its purpose, saying that two-thirds of the money in it wasn’t really related to Sandy but was, rather, pork and other wasteful government spending. (Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact checker, gave Cruz three Pinocchios for that.) Cruz and others, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, also complained that the bill wasn’t really for emergency spending because it covered things like improving forecasts and repairing damaged infrastructure in a way that protected it against the next storm. This time, for the congressional Republicans, as much as for Trump, the emergency can’t stop when the rain does.
The federal government, as it exists beyond the White House, has been busy in its response to the immediate disaster. It undoubtedly helps that the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, worked on the response to Hurricane Katrina, and has had a sense of how badly things can be mismanaged. (On Tuesday, the twelfth anniversary of that storm, Harvey was turning toward the Louisiana coast and New Orleans.) The local authorities have also been indefatigable, though the decision that Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner (a Democrat), made to discourage a mass evacuation of the city before the storm will be debated, and criticized, for years. But part of the legacy of Katrina was more regulations about, for example, building standards, which are precisely the sort of rules that Trump has pledged to roll back; indeed, he revoked some requirements related to flood controls on federal projects just weeks ago. Ben Carson has also disparaged the role of government in providing aid, and of his own department in housing those in need. How will that ideological insistence on limited government translate into practical help for Houston’s homeless and dispossessed? The challenge that Harvey presents is not simply logistical; it is political.
It is also human, and the scenes of neighbors and family members rescuing one another have been wrenching and riveting. CNN broadcast the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who set out alone, in a kayak, to get help for his wheelchair-bound mother. Private charities have done extraordinary work. But this disaster requires more than they can humanly give. If the tragedy of Harvey is not met properly and consistently, on a national level and with an eye toward a long-term commitment, it could mean the decline and fall of a great American city. (The population of Houston’s metropolitan area is some six and a half million, about ten times the population of New Orleans at the time of Katrina.)
And is there a chance that sitting in a control center in Austin is going to persuade Trump that climate change is not a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese? Or that it will make him rethink pulling the United States out of the Paris agreement? Here the problem is not just Trump, or his tweets, or his seriousness. The leaders of the Republican Party—along with too many other Americans—continue to deny what has become obvious: that, although it is hard to connect climate change to any one storm, climate change has increased, and will continue to increase, the number of extreme weather events. As the storm approached, Trump tweeted repeatedly about what a surprise it was. The only logic by which the devastation of Houston is a surprise is the logic of reality television, with twists that come out of nowhere and serve no human purpose but to move the plot along. Such twists are not meant to provide a basis for changing behavior. As for whether they will change Donald Trump—we’re still waiting.