New Orleans 9th Ward April of 2007
We often speak of disaster tourism, when people come to look at the destruction, take pictures and leave. This became especially controversial with the "Katrina Bus Tours" that still run today. But what do we call it when the President of the United States "tours" these same sites?
We demand, spurred by the media, to have instantaneous acknowledgement from the White House. We long for our government to recognize what has just happened and offer words of condolence and support. We expect a prompt guarantee that the federal government will be there, until the affected community is "recovered" and thriving again. Putting aside the issue of lofty promises that are never fulfilled, and fear of lowered approval ratings, one does hope that the underlying intentions of our presidents are good.
In the past 15 years this country has seen a number of precedent setting disasters. Most notably during the Bush administration 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, which re-shaped national emergency management policy. President Obama has addressed the BP Gulf Oil Disaster, several hurricanes including Irene and Isaac, a terrible tornado season including the deadly Tuscaloosa and Joplin tornados. This is on top of wars, economic crisis and a drought now impacting 1/3 of American counties and still just scratches the surface. It's a long, grueling list, one that is only going to get longer.
Presidential visits to disaster sites is not new and has only been made easier by expedited travel. It is an issue that crosses party lines.
When the President takes a trip, he doesn't just pack an overnight bag and catch the redeye. It's an operation, airports and streets are shut down hours before he even arrives and continue to be shut down hours after he leaves. Emergency response stops. Back patting and congratulatory handshakes aside, can't the President say what we all want and need to hear from inside the Oval Office? Is it really necessary for him to come and stop operations during a critical period of time? What value does it bring? What is accomplished?
The media critiques presidential visits when there isn't one but should we instead critique them for when there is one? It isn't necessary, the President can't do anything but wave and make promises as he wades through flooded homes, but he can when he's sitting in Washington with a Congress holding the purse strings. I know, I know, morale booster. The comfort that comes from seeing the President swoop in is nullified by the unseen cost of that comfort
I fear the idea of "federal response to disasters" has come to be measured by the amount of time it takes for the President to land Air Force One in the middle of a ravaged runway. That's not what that term means. Federal response is opening federal funding for emergency needs and ensuring pathways to recovery. Do those things require going to the location of the disaster? No, it involves a signature in Washington. This conversation would be much different if we had seen a correlation between the presence of a President and the amount and continued funding of federal aid programs but, alas, we have not.
For those paying attention you've probably already figured out this post is really in response to Mitt Romney's "tour" of the damage from Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana.
I'll wait to fully share my thoughts on the irony of Romney's Republican nomination speech ("Obama promises to begin to slow the rise of the ocean and to heal the planet...") just hours before traveling to an area of this country where, that very rise of the ocean that he so denies, is a major factor in why he even felt there was a need to grace the southern Louisiana parishes with his presence. But I will say, Mr. Romney, that if you are so concerned with addressing and "drawing attention" to the needs of disaster victims than by all means, select a running mate who doesn't vote against disaster recovery aid bills.
Does anyone truly believe that it was helpful for the the people of Plaquemines Parish to stop what they were doing to show Romney some southern hospitality? Does anyone really think that the emergency operation center in Lafitte, where Romney stopped had the time, desire, manpower or infrastructure to handle a presidential candidate? Good grief, I hope not.
And while no one believes Jindal's claim that, "We're not talking politics", choosing this moment to announce that you're here to educate yourself (Where did the water came from? Really, no one briefed him?) is quite frankly useless and insulting. The time to "educate" yourself isn't while you've halted the actions of emergency responders and you're driving through in your high water vehicles.
Is this expectation, to see our President standing infront of destroyed homes and crying survivors, healthy? Or does this call attention to the momentary satisfaction so desired in our culture? I don't think it's radical to point out a call for an ideological shift in the American way of post-disaster thinking. Is the photo-op that can provide momentary comfort worth the crucial hours that are lost to emergency relief and aid workers? In our unforgiving American culture our politicians, as Joseph Heller warned us, are damned if they come and damned if they don't.
Why waiting is better: There is an important function for the executive branch during a disaster from signing Presidential Disaster Declarations to holding other government agencies accountable. I believe that within this framework there is a place for presidential visits to these communities, but that time is not immediately after something happens. It is in the following weeks, when the initial search and rescue is over and the community has begun, at least, the beginning stages of restoration.
That momentary comfort that looking up and seeing your President address you is little compared to that moment of comfort when the government follows through and hands you the resources you need to rebuild your life.
Is the role of the President to make us FEEL safe or to make us BE safe? Flying in for lunch may comfort us but at the end of the day when Air Force One lifts off and he returns to Washington we are no safer. For in the end he is just a disaster tourist, driving by without stopping to see the pain.