Over the last few days I have watched in awe at the endless rain falling on my home in La Porte, a town on Galveston Bay, just east of Houston. We’ve seen about 30 inches of rain so far; civilian boats have been asked to help rescue those in distress. We’re watching a disaster unfold in real time, and luckily, my neighborhood has been spared the worst of it.
But with the rain still pouring down, I’d like to offer you some advice. My day job typically has me giving advice to progressive politicians, so feel free to take what I have to say with a grain of salt. But my desire to give you counsel is based on my Texas roots, a deep regard for the people of this great state, and my own experience during Harvey — it has nothing to do with my profession. As a Texan, I implore you to consider this advice: Stay away from the Texas Gulf Coast on Tuesday.
Reports say you plan to tour parts of our ravaged state, media in tow, and with the security apparatus that befits your office. This tour will come in the middle of an active natural disaster, with rain still falling, winds still gusting, and rescues ongoing.
Many would argue that a presidential visit will be a distraction — a public relations stunt that has the potential to spin badly out of control at the residents’ expense. Others would say the commander in chief is in a unique position to bring us together after a national disaster. Words matter, and you speaking from the heart about the devastation could have a healing effect on storm-weary Texans.
It’s a tricky balance to strike, and one that has tested many of our nation’s leaders. How do you display the compassion and urgency that a disaster requires, without appearing calculating or out of touch? This is something your people need to think carefully about, and you need to listen to them.
But as a man who watches plenty of cable news, I’d ask you this: Imagine a TV split screen of your speech from the storm-battered Texas coast.
On one side of the screen is you, wearing a FEMA hat and windbreaker, flanked by weary city and county officials — people who likely saved life and property during the course of their job. There will probably be commotion in the periphery, because Harvey is about to hit Texas, again, as a tropical storm.
On the other side of the screen is utter devastation. A live high-water rescue happening in northwest Harris County; the roar of raging waters; a woman stranded on a roof. A helicopter lowers a basket and we watch, hoping for her what we wish for our own family members: safety.
Your visit does nothing to help that woman. If anything, it detracts from the work that needs to happen and the resources needed on the ground. The impact is life-and-death, and shifting focus comes with real consequences.
Lots of Texans need to hear from you, including those on the Gulf Coast, in Southeast Texas and Louisiana. And despite a commitment to stay clear of Houston, Air Force One touching down in Corpus Christi is not exactly a situation that helps either. It looks more calculated, like you understood the destruction happening in Houston, but still wanted to get in front of cameras.
But wait until after the water starts to recede, after the rivers crest. Please.
With respect, we cannot afford a distraction like a presidential visit. And for once I can say this is not political. People are working to save life and property. Your visit will harm those efforts. Come later, and bring a check. Those impacted by the storm will appreciate and notice your actions. Even this Democratic operative, sitting in the middle of a seemingly stalled Harvey, will appreciate your gesture.
But until then, let’s talk politics. The extra space in your schedule created by canceling the visit will give you time to reconsider your proposed cuts to programs like the National Flood Insurance Program. Indeed, your calls to cut spending on the Hazard Flood Mapping program and others like it will only result in higher costs for those, like us, who live in flood-prone areas.
You could even reconsider American involvement in the Paris climate agreement. You’ve touted the science that has allowed the forecasting of this horrendous storm, and science should be one thing we can all agree on in the hyperpartisan world of 2017. Either you take the lead with what the science tells us about our changing world and climate, or cities, states, or organizations will take the lead from you — holding up our end of the Paris Agreement. Days like today show us that history will remember those who worked to protect the environment.
And as you are writing an infrastructure plan, please add some billions in funding for hurricane protection for the Gulf Coast. Engineers and researchers at universities in Texas have workable plans. They are expensive, but they will save us billions of dollars in property damage and countless lives. Plus it will put people to work in areas where we need good-paying jobs.
To sum it up — short of coming to deplete our already depleted resources, there’s plenty you can do.
So, Mr. President, please let us get through this storm before you come to help us heal. The generosity I have seen from Texans over the last few days lets me know that America is a great place. You have one chance to get your response right, so do not rush to demonstrate leadership in the form of a public relations stunt. History will remember.
Kolenc is a public affairs professional who works with Democratic candidates and causes. He is a Texan and calls the Houston area home.
Contact Michael Kolenc at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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