The President

The Politics Of Hurricanes: Why Storms Can Make Or Break A Presidency

Major storms can be devastating and the response from the White House can have lasting political consequences.

The Politics Of Hurricanes: Why Storms Can Make Or Break A Presidency
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Major hurricanes can be devastating, and the government's response can mean life or death. That's why these storms can often make or break a president's career, and can even sway elections.

"The Weather Channel and the news channel just focus on these things 24/7. Even a Category 1 hurricane. So that means that anyone involved in the political process and the response process is going to be under the microscope, even for a small hurricane," said Patrick Michaels, a climatologist and director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Libertarian leaning Cato Institute.

Poor preparation and response to a major storm can have devastating political consequences for presidents. In the fall of 2005, President George W. Bush saw his overall job approval ratings dip to around 40 percent — the lowest since his election — in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Bush and his administration received heavy criticism for what many saw as a lack of planning and a late response to the disaster. 

He later apologized for the poor response from the federal government. 

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," Bush said during a news conference at the White House in September 2005. 

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Bush’s job approval rating never rose above 42 percent again, and Republicans lost the House and Senate in 2006.

"In a way, there was a lot of political learning from Katrina," Michaels said. "It’s always a debate as to what the role of the government is in disaster preparedness. I think in Florence we're seeing pretty much everybody on the ball. That may be, in part, because of the lessons learned from Katrina." 

But storms can also be positive for presidents, politically speaking. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney halted their campaigns in preparation for Hurricane Sandy, which hit the New Jersey coast just one week before the general election.

Obama received praise for the government's response to the storm, even from political foes. 

"Not only did it inundate the New Jersey shore, but it produced a foot of snow in West Virginia and Southern Pennsylvania. It was an amazing event and yes that focused the political process, and I think compelled Gov. Chris Christie to hug president Obama," Michaels said. 

President Donald Trump has already had to deal with his fair share of hurricanes. His administration received praise for it's response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year, but Trump is still reeling from criticism over the response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico. 

On Twitter this week, Trump said his administration received "A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and 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)." 

Puerto Rico's death toll estimates from those storms was recently raised to more than 3,000. Trump fired back at that claim on Thursday, tweeting, "This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"

Now, with Hurricane Florence bearing down on the Carolinas, Trump has vowed to make all necessary resources available and has coordinated with governors from Delaware to Georgia to prepare for the storm. And with midterm elections just a few weeks away, experts say a strong response from the federal government could give Trump and Republicans a boost. 

"Florence will be for him like Twitter is for him. Everybody's going to be watching Florence, and if he doesn't misstep it's going to play positively for him in the election — which is not that far away," Michaels said.