A Presidential Disaster Site Visit Requires More Than You Think

Presidents have visited natural disaster areas across the nation for years, and many of those trips have been well-documented. But what the public doesn’t see is the preparation that goes into getting the head-of-state to a disaster-ridden area and making sure they’re safe during their stay.

Soon, President Trump will visit Puerto Rico where he’ll witness the damage of Hurricane Maria firsthand. Here’s what must be done prior to the trip and during.

1. Make countless phone calls

Donald Trump stands behind his desk

Everyone needs to be notified. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

First thing’s first: White House staffers must notify all necessary personnel of their upcoming visit. The list includes local government officials, FEMA, newspapers and TV stations (local, state, and national), Congress members, local law enforcement, and so on. However, because the president’s safety is a top priority, they will usually withhold the exact details of his trip.

2. Shut down the city

Trump and Melania in Texas

Everyone works to secure the city. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

This video from The New York Times will give you an idea of what it takes for a city to become President-ready. Airport staff, the Department of Public Safety, police, sanitation workers, and Con Edison work together to secure the city, down to the smallest details. Mailboxes and trash cans are removed from motorcade routes, hotel and catering staff are vetted, airspace is shut down 30 minutes prior to POTUS’s arrival, commercial planes are rerouted, and businesses are closed.

3. Time the visit carefully

George Bush Hurricane Katrina

It could cause its own set of disasters. | Stephen Hayford-Pool/Getty Images

Timing matters when it comes to presidential appearances. “On time is best, late is good, and early is the worst,” Dennis Alpert, former White House Director of Advance and Trip Director for Al Gore, told Wired. For example, he noted the former vice president’s visit to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. Gore was 45 minutes early, causing roads to be shut down sooner than necessary and inconveniencing many people.

4. Don’t detract from emergency services

Showing up early is a big no-no. | Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images

It’s important for POTUS and his entourage to wait until local relief efforts have tended to victims before visiting, even if it means they will face criticism for being “too late.” Lars Anderson, former Deputy Chief of Staff at FEMA, told Wired that a presidential visit earlier would take away valuable resources from victims.

5. Act as ‘Consoler in Chief’

Obama comforts Flint victim

Presidents have a very specific role during disasters. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

“Part of the role of the president is to be Consoler in Chief,” Alpert told Wired. This has been especially true with past presidents. During their tenures, President George W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, President Obama, and President George H.W. Bush all addressed victims offering their condolences. Now that it’s Trump’s turn, the Boston Globe was quick to compare previous presidents’ reactions to that of our current president.

6. Draw attention to the event

US President Donald Trump (R) sits with Texas Governor Greg Abbott during a briefing on Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas

A visit from the president brings attention. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

In a telegram to President Calvin Coolidge after the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, the governor of Mississippi said, “Your coming would center the eyes of the nation and the consequent publicity would result in securing millions of dollars of additional aid for sufferers.” And after 90 years, the impact of a presidential visit remains the same. In fact, the American people have come to expect a visit from the president after disaster strikes, The Washington Post highlighted.

Andrew Card, a high-ranking member of both Bush administrations, told the publication, “A visit from the president shines a light on the situation. He brings the national media. He brings attention.” And that attention is important because, according to Card, “Americans are great at responding to a tragedy if they know about it.”

7. Focus on the victims

Puerto Rico victims

The world will judge whether Trump offers the victims in Puerto Rico the comfort they need. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Past presidents have one thing in common when it comes to visiting areas plagued by natural disasters: They make the trip about the victims. They have given hugs, offered kind words, and been the voice of sympathy. Soon, Americans will see if President Trump will follow in the footsteps of past presidents by offering victims hugs or words of encouragement.

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