Presidential do's and don'ts during natural disasters

Presidential do's and don'ts during natural disasters
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When it comes to acts of God, modern presidents have faced their unfair share in truly biblical proportions. Pandemics, epidemics, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts and earthquakes have sprung to the top of presidential agendas. From Exodus’s 10 plagues inflicted on Egypt by Yahweh, only hoards of insects seem to be missing from recent U.S. catastrophes. With climate change upon us, and the proliferation of invasive species (China apparently sent us stink bugs, too), could frogs, lice, flies and locusts be far behind? 

As President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE faces the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his administration can take heed of history’s lessons from past presidential approaches to natural cataclysms.

Lesson 1: Be transparent. As future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis maintained in 1914, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, President Woodrow Wilson and his doctors hid from the public that he had contracted the deadly virus while attending the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, telling reporters he merely suffered a cold. Yet the president lay prostrate in bed, feverishly hallucinating, as his deputies substituted for him at the talks among the leaders of World War I’s victorious nations.


Lesson 2: Declare war on invidious diseases. From the early 20th century onward, poliomyelitis epidemics swept through the country every summer. President Franklin Roosevelt, crippled by the disease in 1921, established  the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis 15 years later, led the March of Dimes to help handicapped victims of the scourge, and created a haven for treatment at his southern White House in Warm Springs, Ga.

Each summer, Americans feared that polio would strike their communities. Children were especially vulnerable. Photos of victims confined to “iron lungs” that breathed for them were devastating. Cities closed pools, beaches and movie theaters to stem the epidemic. But FDR’s successor, President Harry Truman, declared that “the fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war. It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.” To a nation just past World War II and mired in the Korean Conflict, a call to figurative arms must have seemed enervating. Yet, in 1952 alone, 57,628 polio cases occurred in the U.S., leading to 3,145 deaths and 21,269 individuals with paralysis, ranging from mild to total disability.

Lesson 3: Create inspiring images. March of Dimes poster children, with leg braces and crutches, gamely made their way to the Oval Office each year to meet the president and launch the annual fundraising campaign. President Dwight Eisenhower welcomed a curly-haired 5-year-old girl in 1955, signing her autograph book and giving her a peck on the cheek for the newsreel cameras. 

Lesson 4: Mobilize scientific research. Truman’s war metaphor succeeded in launching the race to find a safe vaccine against polio. In 1955 Ike met at the White House with Dr. Jonas Salk, who that year developed the first medical line of defense against the epidemic, followed a few years later by Dr. Albert Sabin’s advances in the safeguard. Off to the local high school gym my brothers and I went to ingest a sugar cube, infused with the new polio vaccine, that would protect us against the malady and virtually eliminate it from the planet.

Lesson 5: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is credited with the aphorism. President Gerald Ford’s response to the 1976 swine flu outbreak broke the second half of the rule. A mistaken belief that the virus was related to the Spanish flu prompted a rush to vaccinate every “man, woman and child in the United States,” as Ford proclaimed. He was pictured receiving his injection in the White House, and back to the high-school gymnasium our family went again, this time for the swine flu inoculation administered swiftly and efficiently by an air gun. By the time 25 percent of the population, or 45 million Americans, received the vaccine, unanticipated side effects developed, including for 450 individuals who contracted paralyzing Guillain-Barré syndrome.


Lesson 6: Don’t appear aloof from the disaster. When the cataclysm is climatic and local or regional in scope, the president needs to visit the sites of the destruction as quickly as feasible. Presidents Richard Nixon (1969’s Hurricane Camille), George H.W. Bush (1992’s Hurricane Andrew), and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Is Congress reasserting itself? Trump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations MORE (2012’s Hurricane Sandy) all bolstered victims’ spirits by hurrying to communities under siege by Mother Nature. Chief executives offered federal assistance and inspirational words to those most in need. By contrast, everyone remembers President George W. Bush flying home from his August 2005 vacation, gazing down from Air Force One on the storm-ravaged Gulf of Mexico coast after Hurricane Katrina. He had valid reasons for not landing and causing more problems for Mississippi and Louisiana authorities, but the delay, especially after the breached levees in New Orleans caused unprecedented suffering for the African American community, appeared heartless at best and racist at worst.

Lesson 7: After-action reports must follow. The Bush 43 administration should be given credit for retrospective self-critiques and reports that provide guidance for future presidents. The George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas even features Katrina in its “Decision Points Theater” so that visitors can learn what it’s like to face such a disaster and role-play as the president, using technology to record their decisions.

Lesson 8: Get out in front of the impending catastrophe. Modern meteorology and virology, plus “big data” analysis, can often provide timely warnings if only administrations and the public are equipped and encouraged by the “First-Responder in Chief” to heed them. President Barack Obama’s effective preparations at the beginning of 2009’s H1N1 virus outbreak and for impending Hurricane Sandy are illustrative. After the superstorm inundated the eastern seaboard, from the Mid-Atlantic to New England states, he worked in a bipartisan fashion with state and local officials to mitigate the crisis.

Lesson 9: If so inclined, invoke the Almighty to address acts of God. Abiding by our constitutional separation of religion and government, a president can simply draw on the conclusion of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth God's work must truly be our own.”

Barbara A. Perry is Gerald L. Baliles Professor and Presidential Studies Director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Follow her @BarbaraPerryUVA.