Natural disasters offer presidents the opportunity to seize the commander-in-chief role, both warning Americans to be responsible in the face of grave danger while providing reassurances that the federal government will be with them for the recovery.
For Trump, it also offers a chance to seize the spotlight himself.
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Over his 20 months in office, Trump has stirred controversy with his bombastic descriptions of hurricanes and other storms. And while his hyperbolic statements may have helped Americans heed warnings to evacuate, Trump has also drawn criticism for later belittling the damage some storms have afflicted on impacted areas.
Below are some of Trump’s most outrageous statements on the hurricanes that have hit the U.S. during his watch.
“If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here that’s really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this — and what is your death count as of this moment? 70? 16 people, certified. 16 people versus in the thousands. … You can be very proud of what’s taken place.”
Trump was heavily criticized last year for downplaying the damage Hurricane Maria afflicted on Puerto Rico, telling the island’s residents shortly after the storm that compared to Hurricane Katrina, the death count from Maria was minimal. Later investigations found the death total from Hurricane Maria to be up to 3,000.
“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine because we’ve saved a lot of lives.”
Just before comparing Maria to Katrina, Trump told Puerto Ricans the high cost of recovery efforts threw “our budget out of whack.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer afterward fired off on Twitter: “To have the gall to complain about PR while proposing tax cuts for millionaires that will cost trillions is the height of hypocrisy.”
“[The Coast Guard] saved 16,000 people, many of them out in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn’t work out too well.”
After Hurricane Harvey struck East Texas, Trump lauded the Coast Guard for saving thousands of Texans from the flood waters. Trump insinuated many people in the water were out watching the hurricane. The comment was quickly rebuked by Texas officials including Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner who tweeted that many of those people were actually saving their neighbors from their flooded homes.
“I hear the Coast Guard saved 11,000 people by going into winds that the media would not go into. … [The media] will not go into those winds unless it’s a really good story, in which case they will.”
Trump used a meeting with Coast Guard members to take a jab at the media while visiting an Air Force base in Houston following Hurricane Harvey. During his visit to Texas, Trump said the state would likely recover far faster than expected because “this is Texas.” He added: “I think for a lot of places maybe it never gets done.” After Hurricane Maria, swaths of Puerto Rico went without power for several months, which Trump blamed on the island’s poor infrastructure.
“It’s tremendously big and tremendously wet — tremendous amount of water.”
Several Twitter users were quick to mock Trump for his description of Hurricane Florence on Tuesday. Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said the storm would be “tremendously big and tremendously wet.” Shortly afterward, he defended his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria last year, saying on Twitter that they “did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan.”
“Bad things can happen when you’re talking about a storm this size. It’s called Mother Nature. You never know, but we know. We love you all.”
In a video tweeted Wednesday morning, Trump continued to assert his administration’s proactivity over preparations for Florence and warned residents of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina to evacuate areas in the storm’s path. He repeatedly asserted on Twitter and during press briefings that his administration is as “ready as anyone has ever been” for the coming storm, and even canceled two campaign events to focus his attention on hurricane response.
“The hardest one we had by far was Puerto Rico because of the island nature. And I actually think it was one of the best jobs that has ever been done.”
Praising his administration’s efforts after Hurricane Maria, Trump said his response in Puerto Rico was an “incredible, unsung success” on Tuesday, prompting a verbal tussle with Puerto Rican officials and mainland Democrats. Though Trump claimed Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló would speak positively of the administration’s hurricane response, the governor shortly after released a statement revealing recovery efforts are far from completed.
“There’s a lot of love in this room.”
One of the most iconic images of Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria showed him chucking paper towels at hurricane survivors in a Puerto Rico church. The room sounded like a campaign rally, as Trump shook hands with cheering residents and handed off provisions like batteries and canned chicken. “Great people,” he said at the time.