‘We’re just blessed, if it wasn’t for social media all of this could have been Katrina 2.0.’ So tweeted one Texan resident last week as the state faced historic ooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. social media quickly became the de facto hub of a mammoth rescue operation.
As 50,000 homes were submerged, Houston residents shared the addresses of loved ones facing rising (and alligator- infested) waters, urging them to hang sheets out of the window to signal they were still trapped. Indeed, it was social media that managed to get help to a nursing home when a picture of its elderly residents sitting in waist-high water – one still knitting – went viral.
But while the flooding escalated and regular people got on with improvising their own rescues, the disaster was eclipsed by political point-scoring on all sides.
Let’s just get the shoes out of the way first. There’s no doubt that the First Lady stepping out on the White House lawn wearing a Top Gun-cum-Janet Jackson- inspired bomber teamed with needle-sharp stilettos triggered a collective worldwide, ‘What the...??’ Cue a million think-pieces picking over such a bold sartorial move from ‘Yet another sign of a way out-of-touch White House?’ to ‘Why are we still so hung up on women’s shoes?’ This isn’t one of those pieces, but surely we can all agree that, feminist wrangling aside, the look was killer for anything but a trip to a disaster zone?
And yes we know she switched to trainers on the flight but still, someone get Melania a right-hand woman already. In the presumed absence of such an ally, it was her right-hand man – the President himself – who knew that while the devastation of parts of Texas and Louisiana will last months if not years, time was of the essence for nailing that all-important photo op. His priority? To imprint an image of a president in control and avoid the slew of negative press faced by George W Bush when he delayed visiting New Orleans after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
So, four days after Harvey hit, the President headed to Corpus Christi – not Houston – apparently in order to avoid further beleaguering the deluged state’s resources. His motorcade was met by supporters and protesters alike, although many baulked at Trump’s failure to meet a single victim. Instead, he staged an impromptu rally outside a re station, in which he praised the crowd for coming out – ‘What a crowd! What a turnout!’ Frankly you might as well gawp at a visiting prez when your neighbourhood is underwater.
But Trump’s awareness that this constituted a defining moment in his White House tenure was clear: ‘We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as this is the way to do it,’ he declared presumptuously.
Away from the action on the ground, it was Twitter – the President’s favoured playground – that played host to the next round of politicking. One Trump supporter sought to fight the President’s corner by sharing a picture of ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, along with the tweet, ‘Three days after Hurricane Katrina: where was Michelle Obama?’ Uh-oh.
Others followed – ‘How come we never saw Obama helping Katrina victims? Oh that’s right, he was golfing at that time’ – and so on. Those with a better grip of recent history then piled in to point out the obvious errors but incredibly, it was still necessary for a major US fact-checking website to post an article entitled, ‘Was Barack Obama President During Hurricane Katrina?’ Hint: Nope.
Former White House photographer Pete Souza clapped back on Instagram with an image of Barack Obama hugging a victim of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to highlight what he saw as a lack of compassion and empathy from Trump. And so it rumbled on. Meanwhile, a chemical plant in nearby Crosby exploded, the town of Beaumont – just 90 miles from Houston – was left without water, and fears grew that the number killed (44, as Grazia went to press) would rise as the waters receded.
In a country whose divisions have been exposed – raw and gaping – in recent weeks, it’s perhaps little surprise that the President lacked the ability to pull people together at this time of crisis. What’s heartening is that they did so anyway. Sarah Reynolds, an evacuee who escaped by boat from Port Arthur with her daughter who is on dialysis, said, ‘I’m just grateful that the community came together, no race, no colour, no prejudices in any kind of way – just willing to help.’