A slew of natural disasters have hit the United States in the past few months. A number of islands and mainland Gulf Coast states have been impacted by severe hurricanes, while the West Coast has grappled with devastating wildfires. But the White House isn’t affording each crisis the same attention. As California faces the most destructive and deadly blaze in its history, President Trump has remained uncharacteristically quiet — seemingly unaware of the disaster’s severity.
At least 40 people have died since wildfires spread across northern California last week. Of the nearly 1,500 missing persons reports filed, more than 230 people are still unaccounted for. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and thousands of residents displaced as firefighters battle numerous fires, some burning more than 200,000 acres.
“Some of them are merely ashes and bones,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said at a press conference. Giordano predicted the death count was likely to rise. “We may never get truly confirmative identification on ashes,” he continued. “When you’re cremated, you can’t get an ID.”
Around 11,000 firefighters were struggling to contain the fires as of Monday morning. Economic damage could exceed $70 billion, placing a strain on California’s budget. The fires have hit wine country hard; footage of Sonoma County reveals a charred landscape once home to orchards and vineyards, something that could take years to return. More immediately pressing is limited access to basic resources — power and water is out in various parts of the region and many residents are afraid of returning to their homes.
“Every day we keep hearing sirens at night, alarms,” Juan Hernandez told Bloomberg. Hernandez fled his home with his family last Monday and is set to relocate again if the wildfires return. “We’re scared,” he added. “When you see the fire close to your house, you’re scared.”
California’s crisis is undeniably dire. But that urgency hasn’t been reflected at a federal level. Residents in Florida and Texas received some attention from Trump following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma last month and the president toured affected areas offering his sympathies. Californians want the same treatment — something they’ve yet to see. Typically active on Twitter, the president has been relatively quiet about the fires apart from brief acknowledgements made in person and outside the internet.
“I spoke with Governor Brown last night to know that the federal government will stand with people of California and be there with you in this time of terrible tragedy and need,” the president said early last week.
Trump’s comments came shortly after California Governor Jerry Brown (D) sent a formal plea to the White House asking for help.
“These fires have forced thousands of Northern California residents to immediately evacuate their homes and seek temporary shelter in order to save their lives,” Brown wrote. “Many residents had little time to flee due to the fires’ rapid and erratic rate of spread through the rural terrain. Tragically, these fires have already taken lives and emergency responders anticipate the number of fatalities could grow.”
In addition to Trump’s brief comments, Vice President Mike Pence also tweeted his support, writing that he and Trump “have the communities that are affected in our thoughts [and] prayers in the days ahead.”
Any further acknowledgement of California’s devastation has been relatively non-existent. Trump’s Twitter is typically a source of constant updates, but the president has yet to add a single comment about the wildfires on his official accounts, despite addressing a number of other topics including health care, religion, and the chances of his former opponent Hillary Clinton running for political office again.
That oversight isn’t sitting well with Californians. In a blistering editorial, the San Francisco Chronicle called out Trump’s silence, criticizing the president’s absence during such a harrowing time.
“This is not a man who is reticent to let Americans know what is foremost on his mind. He is also someone who should have learned by now — after devastating hurricanes and the Las Vegas massacre — that Americans expect their president to step forward with empathy and resolve in moments of national trauma,” the editorial notes. “Yet Trump has offered no more than a few perfunctory words about the Wine Country fires that have left at least 40 dead, consumed thousands of structures and stretched the physical and mental mettle of the dedicated firefighters and medical professionals to the edge of exhaustion.”
The publication went on to blast Trump’s failure to visit California (or, seemingly, to make any plans to do so) and referenced Trump’s treatment of another part of the United States. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory hit by a Category 4 hurricane almost a month ago, is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, one that the president has repeatedly downplayed. Around 85 percent of the island is without power and more than 20 percent lack access to potable water. Puerto Ricans have been warned not to drink water at toxic waste sites after reports circulated that islanders were desperately consuming water from hazardous wells. Fixing the crisis and restoring the island is likely to take at least two years, but Trump has spent his time arguing that federal responders cannot stay there “forever” while threatening to cut off aid to Puerto Rico and simultaneously praising his administration’s response efforts.
Trump initially came under fire for the lag in response time to Puerto Rico’s crisis. Facing pressure and backlash, the president ultimately weighed in, only to attack the island, pointing to its pre-existing debt as the source of its many problems, rather than decades of poor policies from the mainland as well as a legacy of enduring apathy. In a Rose Garden press briefing on Monday, he doubled down, saying that the island “was in very poor shape before the hurricanes ever hit.”
Californians, meanwhile, may see little more attention than the beleaguered Puerto Rico. On Monday afternoon, Trump weighed in only briefly on the wildfires during a Cabinet meeting.
“We mourn the terrible loss of life,” Trump said, saying it was “very sad to watch how fast, how rapidly they move and how people are caught in their houses.”
He went on to praise federal efforts to tackle the fires before turning to discuss health care and other topics.