Is President Trump Prepared To Deal With Disasters? Are You?

Is President Trump Prepared To Deal With Disasters? Are You?

In his new book, presidential historian and health policy expert Tevi Troy has plenty of practical wisdom for how presidents and citizens alike can cope with the inevitable disaster.
Menachem Wecker
By

With the election of Donald Trump, America is entering into uncharted territory. Trump has never had any experience governing, much less confronting the inevitable disasters he will face as president, be they natural or man-made.

The good news for Trump is that this is hardly a new leadership challenge, and there are a lot of historical lessons that he can learn from. “During the night, enter my chamber as seldom as possible,” Napoleon reportedly directed his advisers. “Never awake me when you have good news to announce, because with good news nothing presses. But when you have bad news, rouse me immediately, for then there is not an instant to be lost.”

Waking a leader in the wee mall hours is an absolute last resort, which at points in history could have literally cost the rouser his head if the impending doom was miscalculated. But crises that break late at night and merit awakening the leader can solidify that leader’s reputation as either someone cool under immense pressure or incapable of improvising when it matters most.

These sorts of challenges are at the center of Tevi Troy’s new book, Shall We Wake the President? How America Deals with Disasters, and How You Should as Well, which in 10 chapters addresses both acts of god and acts of man. Among the topics discussed in particular are pandemics, food and water crises, weather, economic collapse, terrorism, bioterror, loss of the power grid, and civil unrest.

‘Feet Down, Not Feet Up’

Troy, the CEO of the American Health Policy Institute, tackles a wide range of specific disasters in his book, ranging from Y2K and hurricanes to an early 20th century influenza outbreak and a plague in the fifth century B.C.E. Troy, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a former White House staffer, including serving as its Jewish liaison, has considerable experience dealing with these matters. Fortunately, he avoids getting too far into the weeds by weaving great stories into otherwise sobering and dense material.

To illustrate how Herbert Hoover couldn’t keep up with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s media skills, Troy notes that Babe Ruth was asked in 1929 why his salary of $80,000 was $5,000 a year more than Hoover’s. “Why not?” Ruth responded. “I had a better year than he did.” That, Troy writes, “became symbolic of [Hoover’s] ineffectuality.”

A few weeks after 9/11, Condoleezza Rice reported to back to President George W. Bush about a suspicious substance found at the White House, which might have infected them and several other senior officials. She used the same language that she’d been told about the FBI’s lab tests, when she broke the good news to the president that they were safe. “‘Feet down, not feet up,’ she memorably put it,” Troy writes.

Then there’s Lyndon B. Johnson’s “biting sense of humor,” illustrated when he came upon two staffers breaking from addressing rioting nearby in Washington for a 3 a.m. scotch at the White House. “They had the misfortune of being caught by the president,” Troy writes. “LBJ, clad in pajamas, looked at them and said, ‘No wonder the nation is going up in smoke and riots and looting. My two top advisers are sitting around drinking!’”

Troy uses these and other stories to offer wide-ranging advice to both presidents and everyday Americans about how to best increase their chances of staying safe amid a crisis.

Keep Calm and Carry On

For leaders, it’s vital to avoid causing a panic. President Bush did a good job of that on the morning of September 11, 2011, when Andrew Card, his chief of staff, whispered into his ear that a second plane had hit the Twin Towers. The president finished reading the 11-page book, “The Pet Goat,” to the students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., rather than immediately leaving the classroom and potentially causing widespread panic.

“Card’s statement was the first (and a remarkably prescient) articulation of the fact that the assault on the Twin Towers had surprised the nation’s top leadership,” Troy writes. “At that moment it was clear that America had failed the first test: the ability to prevent a terrorist attack and protect its people.”

But then came the second test—how to respond. And the president’s response was controversial. “Any leader, and certainly the president of the United States, has countervailing and sometimes conflicting responsibilities in the wake of a crisis,” Troy writes. “It is vital for a president to assume command. At the same time, he must do so in such a way that reassures his fellow citizens, reinforces the markets, and strengthens institutions. Bush was right not to instill panic in a classroom full of students, especially knowing that the cameras were focused on him the entire time, and that the images they would convey would be projected to the entire nation.”

But thereafter, the president and his team miscalculated their response, Troy charges. The Secret Service vetoed an immediate response to Washington, so the president zigzagged between Air Force bases, which failed to instill confidence. “Bush himself recognized this problem, telling Secret Service director Brian Stafford in no uncertain terms that he had ‘decided to speak to the nation, and there was no way I was going to do it from an underground bunker in Nebraska,’” Troy writes.

The ensuing history will be familiar to almost every reader, but Troy’s book charts considerably less-familiar ground.

Bipartisan Progress

When Troy was working at the Health and Human Services department in 2007 and 2008, the government called for manufacturing more influenza vaccines to be prepared for the threat of a pandemic. That call came from both the Bush and Obama administrations.

“There is a tremendous lesson here that should not be missed,” Troy writes. “The fact that two administrations headed by two presidents of such differing ideological positions could advance these commonsense policies is a reason for optimism and reflection. They should also be celebrated as the foundation for bipartisan progress in an age characterized by often bitter, paralyzing progress.”

In fact, in 2009 in the early days of the Obama administration, when H1N1 broke out before a single one of the top 20 HHS roles had been filled, “it dusted off the Bush flu plan to address the swine flu outbreak,” Troy writes. “This plan, which included a robust communications strategy to hold off panic, a stockpiling of 50 million courses of antiviral drugs, and a mechanism for accelerated vaccine production, helped keep the H1N1 outbreak under control.”

Protect Yourself

However reliable the government is to responding to both man-made and act-of-god disasters—and it can never be perfect in addressing the unknown—the public can do its own part to stay safe. “You cannot rely solely on the government in cases of disaster; you need to take steps to protect yourself,” Troy writes.

One way to prevent disease, he notes, is to attend to hygiene. Gone are the times when colonial legislators in Philadelphia considered firing cannons in the air to disrupt the “bad air” that they thought caused yellow fever. With modern knowledge of germs and disease, we know much better than our predecessors.

“None of these recommendations should come as a surprise. Everyone who has attended kindergarten has heard them,” Troy writes. “And yet they are so frequently violated that individuals who want to protect themselves and their families should make sure to keep these at the forefront of their minds in cases of viral outbreaks.”

Among the recommendations are knowing that smartphones are “a classic fomite—medical speak for an item that attracts germs” and washing one’s hands with hot water and soap for a “significant enough amount of time to kill the offending germs” (long enough to sing Happy Birthday twice). Households should regularly have sufficient food and water to last a week, or a long weekend at the very bare minimum, Troy adds.

“Regardless of the amount, you should have these provisions right now. When I say right now, I mean it,” he writes. “If you feel that you are unprepared to handle a snowstorm or other disaster that traps you in your house for a multiday period, you should put down this book and stock up on the necessary provisions. This book will still be here waiting for you when you return.”

Other tips include learning to hunt and fish, growing a vegetable garden, operating a power generator, and trimming the trees around one’s house (to avoid that threat in a hurricane).

Get Your Finances in Order

To avoid financial crises, individuals should have their debt in order, Troy advises.

‘As we learned in the 2008 recession, being burdened by debt makes it that much harder to make it through a financial crisis.’

“As we learned in the 2008 recession, being burdened by debt makes it that much harder to make it through a financial crisis. It also leaves you vulnerable to collection agencies, which, feeling similarly squeezed, can resort to rather unsavory tactics in tough economic times,” he writes.
Having a sound investment strategy is also important, which means having a balanced and diversified portfolio.

“When it comes to stocks, unless you are Warren Buffett, you should assume that you cannot outsmart the market,” Troy writes. “Therefore, low-cost index funds are typically the best bet. Finally, you should not take investment advice from me, your underemployed brother-in-law, or some guy you met at the racetrack. Take the time to find a qualified financial adviser.”

Ultimately, of course, one can never be perfectly prepared for every eventuality. Troy’s book helps minimize the risks, though. “If presidents follow the advice laid out in these pages, the federal government will be more prepared and more capable in dealing with disaster,” Troy writes in the introduction. “If, however, our presidents fail us, you can and must prepare yourself and your family in case disaster does strike.”

Troy’s invaluable book is a brisk 264 pages. President-elect Trump and his advisers would be well-served if they found time to read it before his impending inauguration.

A Washington DC-based reporter, Menachem Wecker holds a master’s in art history (medieval and Renaissance Europe) from George Washington University.

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