When asked Friday why he had not gone to Alberta in person to survey the damage from the Fort McMurray fire, Justin Trudeau replied that a prime minister showing up in the midst of an ongoing natural disaster "is not a particularly helpful thing."
This is the right call. There is nothing that first responders and public officials – whether in Fort McMurray, Edmonton or Calgary – need less right now than a Prime Minister and his entourage flying in to emote in front of cameras, wasting everyone's precious time.
But such decisions are always risky. Like everything else in life, natural disasters are political. Ideology disappears as those in crisis turn to government for help. People across the country pray and donate. If politicians rise to the occasion, their popularity rises also. But if they stumble, the people's wrath can be severe.
Thus far, Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau appear to be doing everything right, both on the logistical and on the more intangible, emotive side.
"Trust us that we have your back, that we will be there for you and support you along the way," Premier Notley promised evacuees Thursday.
But the political verdict arrives only at the end. Solidarity can turn to acrimony if the people conclude that their governments aren't up to the challenge. The politics of natural disasters can be a blessing or curse.
When flood waters surged into Calgary in June, 2013, Mayor Naheed Nenshi's calm, competent and compassionate handling of the crisis turned him into a local and national hero. When a vicious ice storm crippled Montreal and other parts of Quebec in 1998, people counted on Premier Lucien Bouchard's regular briefings to help them get through the misery of being without power, in some cases, for weeks.
The most famous example of a politically damaging natural disaster was Hurricane Katrina. The storm surge from that hurricane in August, 2005, breached the levees protecting New Orleans, leaving a million people homeless there and elsewhere and taking the lives of almost 2,000 people. Inadequate planning, turf battles, poor communication and unconscionable delays on the part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency led to intense criticism of then-president George W. Bush. Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown resigned in disgrace ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" was perhaps Mr. Bush's most infamous line), even as victims and observers accused the Bush administration of incompetence and racism. "George Bush doesn't care about black people," Kanye West declared. Katrina sealed the impression that the Bush administration simply didn't know what it was doing, in Louisiana or in Iraq.
Closer to home, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman earned national ridicule when he called in the army to help Toronto shovel out from under a cascade of snowstorms in January, 1999. The intervention was probably justified – military vehicles, for example, could trundle down streets that ambulances couldn't navigate to rescue the ill and elderly – and Mr. Lastman was re-elected the next year. But the incident tarnished the mayor's – and the city's – image in the eyes of many.
Former prime minister Paul Martin's tardy response to the catastrophic tsunami that struck countries lining the Indian Ocean in 2004 fuelled allegations that "Mr. Dithers" took forever to make a decision. One problem was that the Canadian Forces lacked the heavy-lift aircraft needed to get the Disaster Assistance Response Team to the scene, but that only reinforced the impression that Liberal governments had allowed the army, navy and air force to become dangerously rundown.
But governments learn. When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January, 2010, advance units of an already-beefed-up DART were in the air within 12 hours. The HMCS Halifax anchored near the cut-off city of Jacmel eight days later, loaded with relief supplies. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who was appointed by the United Nations to co-ordinate relief efforts for Haiti, said of Canada: "On a per-capita basis they're the No. 1 in the world in helping Haiti." Stephen Harper's minority government reaped the political reward, as Canadians dug into their pockets to help finance relief.
And when Hurricane Sandy struck the Atlantic seaboard in October, 2012, New Jersey governor Chris Christie probably helped Barack Obama get re-elected when he praised the President's handling of the crisis.
With the Fort McMurray fire, politicians at all levels appear to be doing everything right thus far. That means ensuring that all available resources are mobilized as quickly as possible; keeping both victims and the public informed through regular briefings; flowing financial aid without delay; encouraging citizens who want to help the victims by matching public with private donations; and simply showing, by word and deed, that they care.
Giving Alberta every bit of help it needs – such as by expediting Employment Insurance payments to workers who have lost their job because of the fire, as the government has done – is what matters most right now, as far as the federal response is concerned. If Mr. Trudeau rushed to the province right now, he would rightly be accused of grandstanding.
But the real, legacy-defining question will be how governments respond when those affected by the fire return and rebuild. The verdict on how the Notley and Trudeau governments handled this crisis may not arrive for months or even years.