Much of the Eastern Seaboard spent the holiday weekend staring down the barrel of a violent and unpredictable storm. Hurricane Dorian, the first of the season to menace the continental U.S., exploded with incredible speed into a Category 5 screamer. As of this writing, Dorian has diminished in strength, but northern Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas remain under threat.
Dorian raked the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama with winds that reached 225 mph and a 23-foot storm surge, leaving unimaginable damage in its wake. It is the strongest hurricane to make landfall since 1935, and the second strongest Atlantic hurricane on record.
Thanks to advancements in meteorological technology, hurricanes have become much more of a predictable phenomenon: We can see them developing a long way off, and we generally have a good idea of where they are going and how strong they will be. This makes them no less terrifying or destructive, but at least people stand a better chance of getting out of the way than they did, say, 30 years ago.
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Having this technology in hand is all the more important because of the way climate disruption is serving to turn already huge storms into absolute monsters. Climate change does not create hurricanes, but it does make them stronger.
In the 14 years since the quartet of Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma roared out of the ocean in 2005, there have been 11 Category 5 hurricanes, with five of those coming in the last four years. More than 6,000 people were killed by these storms, and Dorian is not yet finished. By comparison, there were four Category 5 hurricanes in the 14 years before 2005. Clearly, the trend — like the storms — is accelerating.
To be simultaneously predictable and terrifying is a trait shared by hurricanes and Donald Trump nowadays. Sadly, Trump has been predictably awful, contradictory and singularly unhelpful in his handling of these crises before, during and after they happen. Despite its predictability, his behavior is also terrifying and destructive.
It is Trump’s essentially deceitful nature that has made his handling of Hurricane Dorian especially confounding and perilous for those in its potential path. Dorian is the fourth Category 5 hurricane to appear during Trump’s time in office, and yet he spent the weekend repeatedly claiming that neither he nor his weather advisers knew a “Category 5” storm could even exist.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard of a Category 5,” Trump told reporters on Sunday. “I knew it existed. And I’ve seen some Category 4s. You don’t even see them that much. But a Category 5 is something that, uh, I don’t know that I’ve never even heard the term, other than I know it’s there. That’s the ultimate. And that’s what we have, unfortunately.”
This professed ignorance is an old tune often repeated.
Trump on September 14, 2017: “It actually hit the Keys with a — it was a Category 5. I never even knew a Category 5 existed.”
Trump on September 26, 2017: “It actually touched down as a Category 5. People have never seen anything like that.”
Trump on October 19, 2017: “But then they got hit dead-center, if you look at those maps, by a Category 5. Nobody has ever heard of a [Category] 5 hitting land.”
Trump on May 8, 2019: “Never heard about Category 5’s before. A Category 5 is big stuff.”
Yet, tellingly, there have also been several instances when Trump was transmogrified into a world-class hurricane expert. On multiple occasions after Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Trump made sure reporters knew it was a Category 5 storm — though it was actually a Category 4 when it made landfall on the island — as a means of deflecting criticism from his administration’s lethally torpid response to the storm’s destruction.
Nobody expects a president to have the power to manipulate a storm, especially with nuclear weapons, but presidents are expected to help with preparation and warnings beforehand, and to expedite needed assistance once the hurricane has passed.
Instead, we get a president who tweeted with inaccurate abandon some 122 times over the weekend, leaping subjects from Dorian to Debra Messing along the way. We get a president who played golf while “monitoring” Dorian. We get a president who warned Alabama on Sunday that it “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated,” a pronouncement that motivated the National Weather Service (NWS) to issue an immediate correction: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian,” tweeted the NWS. “We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama.”
“Although it might seem like a harmless curiosity,” writes weather editor Andrew Freedman for The Washington Post, “Trump’s self-professed ignorance of Category 5 monsters could slow the government’s response to such disasters or contribute to confusion at the highest levels of government as well as among people in harm’s way.”
“Confusion at the highest levels of government” is an interesting statement at this juncture, given that there is currently no permanent director for the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). The way Trump tells it, however, he likes it that way. “Acting gives you great flexibility that you don’t have with permanent,” Trump told reporters on Friday. “When I like people, I make them permanent, but I can leave acting for a long period of time.”
Trump’s convenient ignorance of the existence of Category 5 hurricanes is the behavior of a man seeking to lie his way out of consequences, even consequences for something he has no real control over. That he simultaneously bellows his thoroughgoing ignorance for all to see as he plays weatherman on Twitter is evidence of someone who enjoys pretending to be president far more than he enjoys the actual responsibilities of the presidency. Hurricane Dorian is just more reality TV for him.
A thousand years ago, give or take a year, legend holds that Canute the Great — whose kingdom spanned from England to Denmark to Norway — carried his throne to the shore and placed it before the waves. Once there, he commanded the tide not to wet his royal feet and robes. The sea, of course, paid him no mind as it ran up the beach and soaked him. Canute did this to show his subjects, and the fawning sycophants at court, that even his power had limits.
Donald Trump is King Canute in reverse. In his desperation to seem powerful and all-knowing, he has instead exposed himself as a truthless, thoroughly inadequate fabulist fool, blown about by the hurricane winds of his own Category 5 ego.