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Storm politics: How federal response to natural disasters can influence a president's approval ratings

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
October 03, 2017, 12:49:52 PM EDT

The federal response to natural disasters can help make or break the overall job approval rating of United States presidents.

Major hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria impacted U.S. territories with catastrophic flooding and damage.

“Three Category 4 or higher storms in five weeks is unprecedented and pose great challenges and logistical problems especially for islands, where airports and ports are not fully operational," Dr. Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather, said.

President Trump has been under heavy scrutiny during his first few months in office. However, his response to these storms presents an opportunity to prove his capabilities to some Americans and to boost his lagging presidential approval rating potentially.

trump Harvey

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump stop to talk with residents impacted by Hurricane Harvey in a Houston neighborhood, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Thus far, Trump has been met with mixed feedback for his response to the storms.

"While we learned important lessons from Katrina in 2005 and our leadership in Washington is doing a much better job overall in responding to this weather disaster, the Caribbean is essentially a war zone, and we must pull together as a nation to help these U.S. territories out of this crisis,” Myers said.

Many political observers have noted that Trump’s message in Texas was weak considering the scale of Harvey’s destruction.

"What a crowd, what a turnout," President Trump said to Texas residents on Aug. 29, while surveying the damage from Hurricane Harvey. "We’re going to get you back and operating immediately."

“There was something missing from what President Trump said… the empathy for the people who suffer,” former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said on Fox News.

Trump was later criticized for his response to Hurricane Maria's extreme destruction of U.S. territory, Puerto Rico. Many accused Trump of being more focused on the NFL protests rather than on Puerto Rico, using Trump's Twitter patterns as a base for these claims.

Trump tweeted about the NFL protests over 20 times and Puerto Rico only four times, from Friday, Sept. 22, to Tuesday, Sept. 26, at 11:30 a.m. However, Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico 9 times within 24 hours starting on Thursday, Sept. 28, at 10:00 a.m.

Politicians in Puerto Rico also have different views on Trump's response to Maria.

Donald Trump and other Puerto Rico officials clashed in the aftermath of Maria.

Other United States officials have also reacted to Trump's handling of Puerto Rico.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was shocked to see that Trump was attacking the San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz in a video tweet.

"You read the president's tweets, he was actually suggesting the Puerto Rican people weren't doing enough. They're in the middle of a life-and-death crisis," de Blasio said in the video.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren also expressed concerns over the federal government's response in Puerto Rico.

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White House statements show that Trump responded to Harvey, Irma and Maria equally quickly. Trump approved major disaster declarations and ordered federal aid for Texas and Florida and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on the day each hurricane made landfall.

However, Trump was not equally quick to visit each place in the aftermath.

Trump went to Florida and Texas four days after landfall but did not promise to go to Puerto Rico until six days after Maria had struck the island. His visit is not scheduled to happen until nearly two weeks after the storm.

Trump's predecessors demonstrate the potential political impacts of natural disasters.

Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast days before the 2012 presidential election. President Obama paused his campaign to focus on the federal response to the storm. He traveled to hard-hit New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie praised Obama for his help.

While Obama advisers said at the time that while they didn't believe the president's Sandy efforts were a deciding factor in the election, the praise he received from Republicans was helpful in the midst of a highly partisan campaign.

Storm Politics: Obama Christie

In this Oct. 31, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upon his arrival at Atlantic City International Airport to survey Superstorm Sandy destruction. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

According to a Gallup poll, 70 percent of voters approved of President Obama's response to Superstorm Sandy, compared to only 43 percent approving of President George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina; Bush's approval ratings dropped to 37 percent a year following the storm.

Bush received widespread criticism for his delayed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

He infamously declared that then-FEMA Director Michael Brown was doing "a heckuva job." This statement that was later found to be wildly misinformed after the full scope of the devastation became clear.

Photos of Bush peering down at the devastation in New Orleans on Air Force One furthered the public's impression that he was detached from the storm.

Bush Katrina

President Bush accompanied by FEMA's Gil Jamieson, rear, picks up a piece of debris as he tours the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Wednesday, March 8, 2006. Six months after Hurricane Katrina left its mark on the Gulf Coast, President Bush was making his 10th trip to the slowly rebuilding region for another progress report. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Hurricane Katrina has been referred to as the "beginning of the end" for George W. Bush.

Bush's job approval rating in mid-October 2005 dropped to 39 percent, the lowest of his presidency until that point. His approval rating never fully recovered from that point on.

While the Katrina aftermath highlighted the importance of a presidential visit following a disaster, demands for executive action date as far

“Your coming would center the eyes of the nation and the consequent publicity would result in securing millions of dollars of additional aid for sufferers,” the governor of Mississippi wired President Coolidge after the historic floods of 1927.

Previous presidents, such as Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, were also quick to take action following a natural disaster.

Bill Clinton toured North Carolina areas following Hurricane Floyd in 1999. George H.W. Bush was initially criticized for not responding immediately to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 but led federal efforts to restore the impacted areas.

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