I’m currently typing this on a couch in Durham, North Carolina. As I look out the window, I can see clouds drifting by at an alarmingly fast pace. Over the past two days, my phone has been inundated with notifications warning of flash floods, dangerous winds, and other complications related to Hurricane Florence. I’ve been lucky — despite warnings from local officials to expect power outages, so far the lights in my house have only flickered. But the storm, which hit Wilmington, North Carolina on Friday, has already taken six lives, flooded several coastal towns, and caused an estimated one million people to lose electricity. The storm is moving slowly, making its way southwest from Wilmington through South Carolina, before it’s projected to head north towards Virginia, traveling in a path that will leave Durham within the storm’s outer range for days. On a practical level, this means that we’ve seen bursts of intense rain followed by periods of eerie calm, those fast-moving clouds ever-drifting, bringing us the next downpour. It feels like being on the world’s slowest, wettest roller coaster, and its cumulative effects will leave our area of the state at risk of flash flooding until Monday at least.
Again, I’m one of the lucky ones. Before Florence made landfall, local meteorologists projected that the eye of the storm would pass directly through Durham, causing a momentary panic that yielded a run on bottled water and gasoline. A lot of this panic, of course, has to do with human nature — if you catch wind that every store in the area is selling out of bottled water because something bad might be on the way, there’s a good chance you’re going to get your ass to the store before the shelves are empty.
Still, it’s hard to discount the impact Donald Trump’s words and actions leading up to the storm has had on the public mood in the Carolinas. One of the traditions of natural disasters is that leaders, from local to federal levels, issue statements offering care and compassion to those who might be affected, pledging swift response and decisive action so that those preparing for impact can hope for relief on the other side. Such theater, in which leaders play caring the part of a caring parent, has always been artifice, but Donald Trump plays the part so artlessly that he manages to reveal the entire charade for what it is.
The Carolinas and Virginia “haven’t seen anything like what’s coming at us in 25, 30 years, maybe ever,” Trump said in a statement to the press earlier in the week, a clip of which he posted on Twitter. In another video, in which Trump directly addresses the camera, he claims that Florence is “about as big as they’ve seen coming to this country, and certainly the East Coast, as they’ve ever seen.” He continues, “Get out of its way. Don’t play games with it. It’s a big one. Maybe as big as they’ve seen. And tremendous amounts of water.” That Trump has seemingly forgotten about the other big storms that also brought tremendous amounts of water — such as Katrina, Harvey, Irma, or Maria, whose death toll Trump has taken time out of his busy schedule of pretending to take phone calls and printing out his own tweets to falsely claim is incorrect — is inconsequential in TrumpWorld, where history is bullshit and everyone is lying except Donald Trump. The bad storm is bad. Buy all the water and the gas and keep checking Donald Trump’s Twitter; he’s gonna retweet some shit from FEMA.
Besides the mass panic that such statements can cause — or the fact that implicitly ranking mass tragedies as if they are not all equally horrifying in their own way is a pretty gross way of thinking — Trump’s rhetoric, if taken at face value, has the effect of minimizing the damages wrought by previous storms upon marginalized communities. While Katrina, Harvey, and Maria disproportionately affected areas with large Black and Latino populations, the Carolina coasts have a history of forcing minorities out so that whites can move in. “In New Hanover County, N.C.,” Andrew Karl, author of The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South, told The Grist, “you had the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carrying out policies that [were] literally eroding the foundation of Black coastal landowners, which then ensured that it would be very difficult to continue to sustain a livelihood there and result[ed] in their eventual displacement.”
The safety of American people is my absolute highest priority. Heed the directions of your State and Local Officials. Please be prepared, be careful and be SAFE! https://t.co/YP7ssITwW9pic.twitter.com/LZIUCgdPTH— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 11, 2018
In addition to their insincerity and racist undertones, there’s another way in which Trump’s hyperbolic statements about Florence fit in with his entire character. By framing Florence as a uniquely lethal threat — rather than yet another in a series of catastrophic natural disasters that shows no sign of abating in the next few years — Trump is granting himself, as well as the corporations whose interests he protects so dearly, the opportunity to shirk away from acknowledging the degree to which climate change exacerbates the intensity of calamities hurricanes and massive wildfires. Meanwhile, by the government’s own admission, FEMA was alarmingly unprepared for last year’s hurricane season, and by not placing Florence in the context of other storms, Trump may be throwing them a get-out-of-jail-free card in case they bungle relief efforts directed at those affected by it.
Time and time again, Donald Trump has proven himself to be is a lazy, incompetent man who will cut literally any corner he can whenever possible. And by promising the worst storm in history, our big wet President wants to absolve himself of having to clean up its big wet mess.