Columns / Discourse / November 7, 2012

Debating columnists: FEMA, Hurricane Sandy

The destruction of many parts of the East Coast last week by Hurricane Sandy shows the importance of having a well-run, adequately-funded federal disaster relief agency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency acted brilliantly last week to aid those adversely affected by the storms. This is in stark contrast to its slow and botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The differences in response time and effectiveness between the two disasters are, I believe, indicative of two drastically different ideologies of the role of government in American society. The Katrina response under President George W. Bush reflects the predominant Republican ideology of “every man for himself,” whereas FEMA’s response to Hurricane Sandy reflects a “we’re all in this together approach” toward governance.

I don’t mean to callously politicize the disaster — people were injured, some were killed and many lost their homes and businesses. But I do believe it’s appropriate to point out that many Republican leaders, especially Governor Romney, do not believe in federal outlays for disaster relief. In the name of some abstract notions of “fiscal responsibility,” Romney proposes gutting, if not entirely eliminating, the disaster relief agency that provides essential services in times of dire emergencies. This will have real consequences as we move forward into a world where, due to climate change, extreme weather becomes an all-the-more common occurrence.

Under Romney, the ultimate responsibility would fall to the states, then local governments and, then, private individuals. The national government would presumably play little or no part. I say “presumably” because Romney went mum on the issue after Sandy struck. Since then, he’s abstained from clarifying his position vis-à-vis FEMA. Because of this, we’re left with his earlier statements on the need to cut FEMA funding.

Earlier in the campaign, FEMA was a convenient punching bag. It’s an agency nobody really thinks about unless there’s an impending natural disaster. Thus, Romney could, without consequence, sound like a crusader for fiscal reform while advocating against an essential federal program.

But Sandy provided the American people with a stark counter example of what a well-run, well-funded emergency management agency can do. It coordinates state and local emergency response activities, it provides support when local agencies become overwhelmed and it provides necessary funds for the rebuilding of essential infrastructure. These are not fringe benefits that we must sacrifice in order to balance the budget. They are, rather, essential activities that our immensely wealthy nation can easily afford.

When they advocate cutting FEMA funding and devolving responsibility to the states, Republicans reveal their lack of understanding of the country’s disaster-response system. States already do provide emergency services in times of natural disasters. They call on FEMA, however, when their own response efforts become overwhelmed (or when they know in advance that their efforts will be inadequate).

FEMA provides a safety-net, and it prevents states from unnecessarily replicating costly emergency-relief infrastructure.

One might argue that FEMA saves money because it centralizes response for particularly devastating natural disasters. Why should every state replicate FEMA when disasters like Sandy usually only strike one region of the country at a time?

The coming of hurricane Sandy shows that there are real material consequences of enacting the Republican  “every man for himself” ideology in public policy. With a less-prepared, less-capable FEMA (or even without FEMA at all), more people would have died, more would have been injured and rebuilding would have proceeded at a much slower pace.

Joshua Gunter
Joshua Gunter was the liberal half of "Debating Columnists" during fall 2012 and winter 2013. He graduated in winter 2013 with a degree in art history and currently works as an account researcher for the Brunswick Group in New York City. At Knox, he also served as co-editor-in-chief of Catch magazine.

Tags:  Bush Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA Hurricane Hurricane Sandy Katrina natural disaster obama romney

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