The map of disasters is immense, and the suffering often anonymous. As I write, firefighters are battling a blaze that has spread across huge swaths of dry land in the San Fernando Valley, 15 miles north of my home in Los Angeles. Monsoon rains in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Niger have resulted in the deaths of over a thousand people. Mudslides in Sierra Leone claimed 500 lives, and many victims are still missing. And in Texas and Louisiana, Hurricane Harvey caused flooding and devastation on a scale rarely seen on the Gulf Coast. Faced with calamities like these, the natural human impulse is to ask: How can I help?
We’ve already seen heroic answers to that question in the aftermath of Harvey. Texans volunteered at shelters and food banks, donated bottled water and supplies, and searched for survivors in flooded neighborhoods. Several Houston-area mosques opened their doors to evacuees. Jim McIngvale, a local businessman who calls himself “Mattress Mack,” turned his furniture stores into shelters for those in need. The Cajun Navy, a group of volunteers from Louisiana, brought their boats across state lines to assist in rescue efforts. And reporters rushed into the eye of the storm to bring us the news. But while these stories inject us with hope, we must also ask why volunteer efforts are so desperately needed in the first place.
A disaster like Harvey raises important questions about the role of government and the effectiveness of its response. All of us depend on a range of local, state, and federal agencies to prepare for an emergency, show leadership as it unfolds, and provide relief in its aftermath. Unfortunately, the record of our current leadership fails to inspire any confidence whatsoever. On the evening of August 25, for example, while Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff who was accused of racial profiling and systematically violating civil rights in his jails, including an immigration facility often referred to as a “concentration camp.” In his announcement of the pardon, Trump called Arpaio an “American patriot” who “kept Arizona safe.”
Perhaps hoping to distract from this shockingly inappropriate response, Trump traveled to Texas, ostensibly to witness the devastation caused by the hurricane. Yet it seems he couldn’t help but treat the disaster zone as though it were one of his campaign rallies. He showed up in Corpus Christi on August 29 in a branded hat that he sells on his website for $40. Standing between two fire trucks, he promised Texans that “We’re gonna get you back and operating immediately. Thank you, everybody. What a crowd! What a turnout!” At a meeting with local leaders, he joked that Harvey “sounds like such an innocent name…right? But it’s not, it’s not innocent.”
This performance was widely criticized, so Trump flew down to Texas on September 2 for a do-over. This time, he went hatless, met with people at shelters, hugged a few children, and vowed (via Twitter, of course) that “we will prevail in the GREAT state of Texas.” He also pledged to donate $1 million of his personal fortune to hurricane-relief efforts. Whether any of that money will actually be paid remains to be seen. Trump has—how shall I put this?—a mixed record on charity. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold reported on several cases in which Trump didn’t come through on his pledges, or else paid them through the Trump Foundation—which is to say, with other people’s money.