Dana Milbank: An unstoppable Florence meets Trump’s immovable Washington

Video: President Trump called his response to Hurricane Maria “an incredible, unsung success.” But in town of Yabucoa, the mayor says the President ‘denigrates the people of Puerto Rico.’ (Whitney Leaming, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Washington - This small meteorological irony reveals big things about the Age of Trump.

Fifty weeks ago, following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, which we now know killed some 3,000 Americans in Puerto Rico, Democrats on the House Government Reform Committee called for hearings into the flawed federal response to the 2017 storms in Puerto Rico.

The Republican majority hemmed and hawed, dithered and stalled for nearly a year, before finally this month scheduling a hearing on 2017's storms for Thursday — just in time for Hurricane Florence to hit the Carolina coast.

FEMA administrator Brock Long, quite reasonably, canceled his appearance to deal with more pressing business. The hearing was called off. It's a bit late to learn from 2017's mistakes when 2018's storms are already making landfall.

Heckuva job!

This week we see two opposing forces of nature: Florence, with winds of nearly 130 mph, and President Trump's Washington, which hardly moves at all.

Trump's response to the tragedy in Puerto Rico has been to congratulate himself for his amazingly fantastic relief efforts.

And the Republican majority in Congress has assisted Trump's fiction by suppressing an investigation. Various committees held hearings on aspects of the 2017 hurricanes — though these do not appear to have focused on Puerto Rico relief or to have resulted in the release of findings.

If it is true that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, we are up a creek in a flash flood.

Trump first established his concern for Puerto Rico after the storm, when he tossed victims rolls of "beautiful, soft towels," telling them "you can be very proud" because only 16 people at the time had been reported killed, compared with "a real catastrophe like Katrina." The death toll from Maria in Puerto Rico today stands at 2,975 — 1,000 more than Hurricane Katrina's toll.

Trump continued this compassionate display in June, when he used a FEMA briefing on hurricane preparedness to talk about his dealmaking abilities, his political endorsements, his fondness for coal and his upcoming summit with North Korea. He didn't mention the dead in Puerto Rico but did assert that "our level of popularity is great."

This week, after beginning the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a tweet disparaging the FBI and Justice Department, Trump said Puerto Rico's governor would vouch for Trump's "incredibly successful" hurricane response: "If you ask the governor, he'll tell you what a great job" he did.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló responded by saying: "This was the worst natural disaster in our modern history. Our basic infrastructure was devastated, thousands of our people lost their lives and many others still struggle. Now is not the time to pass judgment."

No, judgment time was during the past year, when lawmakers could have forced FEMA to make changes. But the Senate Homeland Security committee, which has jurisdiction over the matter, had only one hearing with Long on the topic. Democratic calls in both chambers of Congress for a commission went nowhere.

Democrats on the House Government Reform Committee complained this month that Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., held no full committee hearings on the hurricanes (there were two subcommittee hearings), no transcribed interviews, only three agency briefings and no briefings from White House officials; requested no documents from the White House; and issued no subpoenas.

By contrast, after Katrina, then-Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., led a select committee that arranged nine hearings, scores of interviews and dozens of briefings and obtained numerous documents from the George W. Bush White House using subpoenas. Davis issued a 569-page report faulting the Katrina response at all levels.

A Gowdy spokeswoman said the committee "has engaged with FEMA relating to its oversight and investigative work on a near-weekly basis," had various member and staff briefings and reviewed 17,000 pages of documents from agencies.

The Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress that has no enforcement powers, issued a report this month citing problems with debris removal, inadequate prepositioning of materials, not enough generators, insufficient housing for relief workers, staff shortages, too few bilingual employees, and employees without necessary skills or physical stamina. At the height of FEMA deployments last year, "54 percent of staff were serving in a capacity in which they did not hold the title of 'Qualified,'" the GAO wrote.

Even FEMA itself contradicted Trump's claims of incredible success, saying that it was understaffed and that it needed to "deliver our programs differently."

Let's pray FEMA has healed itself and is now up to the task — despite the inaction of a president in denial and a Congress giving him cover.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post op-ed columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics. Twitter, @Milbank.