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Trump Says the East Coast Is 'Absolutely Prepared' for Hurricane Florence. Is That True?

If recent federal disaster response is any indication, the president's boast is wildly misleading.
President Donald Trump is pictured following a briefing on Hurricane Florence in the Oval Office at the White House on September 11th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump is pictured following a briefing on Hurricane Florence in the Oval Office at the White House on September 11th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Hurricane Florence is expected to make landfall on the East Coast early Friday morning, sending many into a state of panic. But on Tuesday, President Donald Trump dared the storm to do its worst. "We're all ready. FEMA is ready. Everybody's ready," Trump told ABC News, following a September 11th event in Pennsylvania. "There's a chance it could be a very bad one. We're absolutely prepared."

This likely overstates the nation's preparedness for Florence and other hurricanes, which, due to climate change, are assailing coasts with greater strength—whether we're ready or not.

After Trump's claim, reports surfaced showing the administration authorized a transfer of nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which responds to disasters like Florence, to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to NPR, FEMA officials say they have more than enough resources to weather the storm. However, Democratic politicians are skeptical, and if recent federal disaster response is any indication, Trump's boast of being "absolutely prepared" is wildly misleading.

Here's what research on disaster response tells us about this hurricane season:

  • Since Hurricane Katrina, there have been increased efforts to improve disaster response—but a 2018 policy review from University of California–Berkeley professor Daniel Farber shows these efforts failed, by every metric, in recent practice. During Hurricane Maria, "the federal government failed to rise to the challenges posed by logistical difficulties and strained agency resources due to prior disasters that same year," Farber writes in the study. "The government response was hindered by unrealistic planning, Puerto Rico's lack of political power in Washington, D.C., and an inattentive presidential administration." (All this stands in contrast to Trump's conspiratorial claim on Twitter Thursday, denying the storm's death toll and heralding the response to Maria as an "incredible unsung success.")
  • A 2017 analysis by the World Resources Institute shows that every $1 spent on measures to improve preparedness before a storm can save $4 in future damages. But as Pacific Standard reported in 2017, the Trump administration has curbed these measures by censoring experts and proposing cuts to climate research. This has happened on the state level as well: North Carolina, which will bear the brunt of this latest storm, has banned the use of scientific models on future sea-level rise in coastal policies, delaying the use of technology that could have helped prepare those the state is meant to protect, according to the Charlotte Observer.
  • Even with the best disaster response, coastlines face an ever-increasing challenge amid climate change. Experts predict storms like Florence will become stronger and more extreme with time. In fact, the Baltimore Sun reports that a simulation of a storm similar to Florence predicted "catastrophic," Katrina-level damage to the East Coast—a level of destruction for which agencies may never be truly ready.