By Carlo Versano
Natural disasters, hurricanes especially, were once an opportunity for administrations to flex their leadership and empathy muscles. When they failed (see: Bush, circa Katrina), the results were politically devastating. When they succeeded (see: Christie, circa Sandy), they launched presidential campaigns.
Those days appear to be over.
On Thursday morning, as the outermost rain bands from Hurricane Florence neared the Carolina coastline, putting more than 1 million locals under evacuation order, the president used the power of his Twitter megaphone to claim (falsely) that the death toll from last year's Hurricane Maria ー in which nearly 3,000 died directly and indirectly from the storm ー was fabricated by Democrats trying to do him political harm.
Thursday's tweet storm from President Trump was particularly "bizarre," said Andrew Freedman, a science editor at Axios, who noted in an interview Thursday on Cheddar that not only was the death toll considered official, but it was also confirmed by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, a person with whom Trump has largely been friendly.
In August, after an independent investigative study by George Washington University found that an estimated 2,975 people died in the storm or in its aftermath, the government begrudgingly embraced it as an accurate reflection of Maria's devastation.
Puerto Rico's government "dragged its feet," in moving its toll from 68 to 2,975, but officials eventually accepted it, Freedman said. For Trump to now cast doubt on the number "doesn't make sense."
David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen's Climate Program, told Cheddar that he was "losing my ability to be shocked" by what the president says, though Trump's comments ー casting doubt on the deaths of thousands of Americans as millions more are in the path of another massive storm ー are particularly unnerving this time around.
"This is just another instance of him making up his own facts because reality doesn't fit what he wants," he said.
Florence, which was a Category 2 as of the latest National Weather Service bulletin, is now expected to slow down and take a circuitous path as it makes landfall Friday, essentially scraping and stalling along large swaths of the coastline ー which means a potentially deadly combination of storm surge and catastrophic inland flooding.
While a single storm cannot be attributed to climate change alone, the effects of climate change helped create Florence, Arkush said.
"There are a few ways that climate change can strengthen hurricanes and increase the damage that they do, and they're all present here in spades," he added.
In particular, the system's "odd" beeline for the coast ー rather than a more typical northerly path ー was the effect of a high pressure system that stalled out in the Atlantic, which pushed the gathering storm south in the early days of formation.
There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that climate change is reshaping the jet stream and making weather systems stay in place longer, Arkush said. That could mean more time for tropical systems to stay in place over warm water and gather steam.
Though once the rain stops and the recovery begins, no one should expect the Trump administration to share that view.
"They are so far out of the mainstream on climate science," Freedman said.
For full interview click here.