"Unsung success": Trump says handling of the Puerto Rico hurricane was some of the best disaster management ever

Everyone can agree on this much: The “success” here certainly is unsung.

It’s a grim coincidence that POTUS was asked about this on 9/11, as the death toll on that day and the death toll from Hurricane Maria were nearly identical according to the GWU study released a few weeks ago. (The government of Puerto Rico has itself adopted 2,975 as its new official number of deaths.) Could a disaster in which 3,000 people died nonetheless be a management success? Of course, if good preparation prevented a much higher body count.

The wrinkle is that FEMA itself noted several months ago that the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria left it somewhat unprepared for the latter.

The hypothetical hurricane FEMA planners had anticipated and prepared for in recent years was far less destructive than the one that arrived on Sept. 20. FEMA envisioned a storm knocking out power to 73 percent of the population, the report states. Maria destroyed the entire grid — much of it for months.

The hypothetical storm would require search and rescue resources across 75 percent of the island. Maria required search and rescue for 99 percent.

The plan imagined that 56 percent of hospitals would be affected. The reality was 92 percent.

FEMA on Friday defended its efforts, saying it faced unprecedented challenges when hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria roared through the Caribbean in rapid succession during a few weeks in August and September.

GAO issued its own report on the feds’ shortcomings in hurricane preparedness just a few days ago; Philip Bump has some lowlights here.

Trump had been president for eight months when the Atlantic started throwing hurricanes at the Caribbean last year. FEMA’s lack of preparedness obviously didn’t begin on Inauguration Day. That’ll probably be the next stage of this debate as Democratic outrage builds. Today the clean-up was an “unsung success,” tomorrow it’ll be a failure bequeathed to the new administration by Barack Obama. I think Trump’s instinct to call it a success is the better play between the two, however hard that is to square with a 9/11-style death toll. Voters instinctively credit or blame the current administration for successes or failures that the country experiences on its watch, however long the actual chain of responsibility might be. That’s all upside for Trump on the economy, all downside on Puerto Rico and Maria. He’s smarter to try to spin it as not quite as catastrophic as it might have been than to imply there was nothing he could have done in eight months with the FEMA bureaucracy he was in charge of.

But then, there probably wasn’t a strategy here. This is POTUS in default mode: Ask him about something for which he’s responsible and of course it’s the best, the greatest, an unprecedented triumph. Too bad for Fox News primetime, said a Twitter pal earlier, as now they’re going to have to take this baton from Trump and build out an argument for why the Puerto Rico clean-up really was one of the great emergency management responses of all time. They’re the tip of the Republican messaging spear. Gotta deliver now that the general’s given his orders.