Tracking Trump’s inattention to Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria via his tweets

Ten days after Hurricane Maria made landfall, millions in Puerto Rico are still without electricity, gas, cash or running water (make a donation to help out here)—but this is 2017, so obviously we’re talking about the president’s bad tweets.

The meta-narrative here is that Trump is on the defensive against an emerging narrative that the administration has been tragically slow to respond to Maria, the third major hurricane to make U.S. landfall this season. In fact, the specific tweet that got me thinking about this post was actually from Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee, pushing back on a report published by the Washington Post overnight.

The report itself is a truly damning, and depressingly plausible, account of Trump’s initial handling of Maria. It describes how Trump became alerted to the true urgency of the crisis in Puerto Rico only after watching television from his golf club in Bedminster, NJ, already several days after Maria made landfall and knocked out power for the whole island.

Though the obvious answer to “should we believe Sarah Sanders that Trump has been attentive to the crisis?” is “no” we are actually in a fairly unique position, historically speaking, to understand the president’s priorities and state of mind over this period. Because of his bad tweets.

So, as it’s a beautiful Saturday in NYC, I cracked open Excel and coded five weeks of the president’s tweets and retweets based on their subject-matter. The data is displayed in the charts below, with tweets about the three recent hurricanes—Harvey, Irma and Maria—highlighted. I also note the dates each hurricane made landfall in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively, and the dates Trump visited each hurricane site.


Here’s the same data, but with each day’s topics shown as a percentage of all topics Trump tweeted about that day.


It’s pretty obvious which events really gained the president’s attention. In terms of hurricanes, Trump tweeted dozens of warnings and, later, supportive messages for Harvey. Similarly, Irma dominated his output when it seemed poised for a direct hit on southern Florida (it also hit PR several days earlier—killing three—thought only one Irma tweet mentioned the island). Maria has only come into the foreground the past couple of days—more than a week after landfall, and after coverage had already turned negative on the administration’s handling of a growing crisis. And while Trump visited both Texas and Florida within 5 days of landfall, his first trip to Puerto Rico is scheduled for next Tuesday, 13 days later.

Notice also that Trump found plenty of time to tweet about other topics in the period after Maria hit Puerto Rico, including 25 tweets about the NFL protests, 18 tweets about the UNGA, 15 about Senate health care bills and 13 about the Alabama U.S. Senate primary (including several he later deleted). During this same period he tweeted or retweeted a total 22 times about Puerto Rico and Maria (as of noon Sep 30), not including his five tweets this morning attacking the Mayor of San Juan and the media for its coverage of the crisis.

The data tells a story that is consistent with two especially troubling features of crisis management in the Trump Era: first, that Trump will only give a crisis attention once it starts to look especially bad on cable news (remember Syria?)—and, second, that this first feature means crises, even those affecting millions of Americans, may go ignored until its too late.


Tracking Trump’s inattention to Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria via his tweets