President Donald Trump and the first lady visited Alabama on Friday to survey damaged areas and offer support to locals after a slate of deadly tornadoes ripped across the region last weekend, killing 23 people, including four children.
After touching down in Fort Benning, Georgia, the couple headed to Lee County, Alabama, where much of the damage occurred. They flew over the tornado-torn county to assess the damage, traveled to a disaster-relief center to thank first responders and meet with survivors and volunteers, and stopped at a memorial to honor victims, CNN reported.
Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama thanked the president for visiting the state during a news conference on Thursday, according to the Associated Press, adding, “Seeing the devastation will take your breath away.”
The president’s visit comes after a controversial tweet he posted on Monday, writing: “FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been devastated by the Tornadoes.”
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who tweeted on Monday that she had spoken to Trump and was coordinating efforts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to evaluate next steps, thanked the president for his support. A day later, Trump approved a disaster declaration for Alabama, ordering federal aid to assist with recovery efforts.
But his “A Plus” tweet sparked concerns over how Trump responds to natural disasters and whether he is more gracious with his time and attention when the state aligns with his political leanings.
Disaster experts told INSIDER that Trump’s tweets and rhetoric has cast doubt on FEMA’s efforts as an apolitical agency to provide relief to survivors.
“My first reaction was that there’s no such thing as an A-plus. Every disaster response should be as robust and targeted as possible, regardless of where you live,” Rafael Lemaitre, a former director of public affairs at FEMA during the Obama administration, said.
“The president has politicized disaster relief in a way we haven’t seen before, in terms of how he talks about it in public and how he’s used it as a mechanism for advancing whatever position he has, and that’s dangerous.”
After the California wildfires, Trump in part blamed the state for the disaster and said he ‘ordered FEMA to send no more money’
Alabama, a solidly red state in the heart of the South, swings in the opposite direction of California, a blue bastion that also experienced a devastating natural disaster last year when multiple wildfires tore through the state.
The Camp Fire in Paradise, a town north of Sacramento, was one of the worst in state history, killing 86 people and destroying nearly 14,000 residences and over 4,800 buildings, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Wildfires raged through Southern California around the same time.
The Camp Fire was the world’s most expensive natural disaster in 2018, according to the global insurance group Munich RE, with $16.5 billion in damages.
Trump visited the state in November to tour affected communities, but then falsely claimed on Twitter that the wildfires were the result of poor forest management and threatened to cut critical federal aid.
In January, Trump wrote: “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
“If you are somebody in Paradise, California, who is still living in temporary housing because you lost everything, the last thing you need is more uncertainty in your life,” Lemaitre told INSIDER.
“They shouldn’t have to be concerned about the president yanking support for political reasons; they should be hearing that the chief executive is providing the resources and the tools that FEMA and other agencies need to complete their mission.”
Trump also faced criticism for what many saw as a lackluster Hurricane Maria response
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in September 2017, which devastated the island of Puerto Rico, Trump expressed similar rhetoric, reprimanding local leaders and threatening to pull aid while the island was still grappling with a major crisis.
The powerful Category 4 storm damaged or destroyed more than a third of homes on the US commonwealth and debilitated the aging power grid. It took 10 months to restore power to the entire island.
The Trump administration and FEMA faced criticism for how its response to Hurricane Maria lagged behind the actions taken following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma on the mainland, prompting a group of Democratic lawmakers to introduce a bill in June to establish an independent commission to investigate the federal response to Maria.
Over a year after Maria hit, Puerto Rico continues to recover. The storm killed nearly 3,000 people, according to an August 2018 study by researchers at George Washington University and the University of Puerto Rico.
The president tweeted in response to that study, rebuking its findings, writing: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths,” adding in a follow-up tweet: “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible.”
Puerto Rico’s government raised the official death toll to 2,975 on August 28.
‘People at FEMA are going to do their jobs’ regardless of politics
Craig Fugate, the former FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama, told INSIDER that despite the president’s tweets, the agency continues to provide relief to disaster victims to the best of its ability.
“Quite honestly, I find it very disrespectful that people even question [FEMA’s] efforts based upon the president’s tweets,” Fugate said. “The bottom line is the people at FEMA are going to do their jobs based upon the needs of the community, and it isn’t going to be based on politics.”
Lemaitre acknowledged that, at least for now, FEMA will continue to provide natural-disaster support because of the Stafford Act, which authorizes the government to provide assistance to states during declared disasters and emergencies.
He said the biggest challenge is how Trump’s rhetoric has eroded public confidence in federal institutions’ ability to provide relief.
“The rank-and-file people who work at FEMA are committed to its mission and continuously improve their support to the communities they serve over time. And I think that whenever the president politicizes disaster relief it can throw that into doubt,” Lemaitre told INSIDER.
“The truth is, disasters don’t care about politics. Disasters can happen anywhere and anytime, and one of the basic duties of the federal government before, during, and after disasters is to make sure that resources are available.”