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Florence: Hurricane poses new test for Trump as he brushes off criticism over Puerto Rico. 'We're ready'

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2018-09-12 David Jackson
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about Hurricane Florence. © AFP/Getty Images President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about Hurricane Florence.

WASHINGTON – Facing the political perils that a natural disaster can bring, President Donald Trump is emphasizing that his team is ready for Hurricane Florence even as he comes under renewed fire from critics who have slammed the response last year to the devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria.

In tweets, statements, and a short video released Wednesday, Trump has praised his team's hurricane preparation – "we're ready, we're able" – and urged residents of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia to take warnings seriously.

"Bad things can happen when you’re talking about a storm this size," Trump said in the 1-minute, 26-second video he tweeted out Wednesday. "(It's) called Mother Nature; you never know – but we know."

Trump has also hailed his administration's past response efforts – including Puerto Rico, which he called an "unsung success" in the face of criticism.

Nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of  Maria, making it the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. The toll far exceeded the original estimates, leading to accusations that FEMA did not do its job.

Maria left much of the island without power for months as it destroyed homes and and crippled infrastructure.

On a visit to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Sept. 20, 2017, storm, Trump tossed paper towels to Puerto Rican residents at a local relief center, angering storm victims and others who saw his actions as insensitive.

Democrats excoriated Trump over his tweet saying that his administration "got A-pluses" for previous hurricane work in Texas and Florida and "did an unappreciated great job" with Puerto Rico.

"The 2017 hurricane season made painfully clear that FEMA has limited capacity to respond to multiple disasters as it is," said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Thompson and others pointed to a new report that said the Trump administration used nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's budget to bolster border efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told USA TODAY that, with more hurricanes on the way, "this is just incredibly irresponsible."

Trump administration aides said the money in question was unused administration funds, and that moving them to ICE did not affect FEMA rescue missions.

The Trump administration is looking to avoid the political fate of predecessors like George W. Bush. Bush took heat over the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as thousands of flooded-out New Orleans residents were stranded without access to food or shelter.

Bush's father saw his re-election prospects in 1992 dim over what critics called a slow response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

It can happen at any level of government.

Back in 1979, political analysts believe Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic lost his re-election bid to Jane Byrne because of the poor way the city handled a major snowstorm.

"Any executive – mayors, governors, presidents – are really judged by how they respond to these natural disasters," said Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow in governance studies with the Brookings Institution. "George Bush had a deep slide after Katrina, and he never really recovered from it."

More: Trump gives himself 'A pluses' on 'hurricane work,' blames Maria on San Juan mayor

More: Trump administration took nearly $10 million from FEMA's budget to support ICE, documents show

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