Hurricane Sandy and Why Belief in Effective Government Matters

With Hurricane Sandy walloping New York, New Jersey, and other parts of the East Coast with powerful winds, torrential rains, and a massive storm surge, there is renewed interest in a long running debate regarding the proper role of the federal government in providing relief for areas of our nation hit by natural disasters.

On one side are conservatives who seek to privatize disaster relief or devolve it to the states.  For example, when tornadoes ravaged Joplin, Missouri in May 2011 and the Ohio River Valley in May 2012, Mitt Romney, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), Gov. John Kasich (R-OH), and other Republicans attacked the idea of federal disaster relief.  And the GOP has continued to push for cuts in the budgets for Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association despite the critical roles those agencies play in predicting, preparing for, and dealing with the consequences of natural disasters.

On the other side, Democrats believe that the federal government should must take the lead in helping people and communities recover from natural disasters, and in rebuilding infrastructure in the wake of such disasters.  As such, Democrats during both the Clinton and Obama Administrations have worked to rebuild relief agencies such as FEMA that had been decimated by Republican rule.

Below is a post from March 2011 explaining the philosophical differences between the parties on the issue of disaster relief, and how those differences have real world impacts in the lives of millions of Americans who are or will be impacted by natural disasters.  While the post was written approximately 18 months ago, we think it holds true to this day.

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“It Ain’t Like Katrina – We’re Getting Help”

Here at Winning Progressive, we define progressivism as the belief that we should use the tools of government to advance important individual and societal goals that individuals cannot reasonably achieve on their own and/or that the free market will not provide. We can and should have debates over whether specific government programs should be reformed, shrunk, expanded, or eliminated, and how we improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the government programs we have, as such debates are critical to ensuring that government serves the need of the public.  Unfortunately, for years now conservatives have focused not on such a debate, but instead have sought to vilify government as an evil entity that needs to largely be eliminated.  Such a philosophy is detached from reality and does little to benefit the American people.

A prime example of the failure of conservative vilification of government can be seen from the contrast between emergency disaster response to the recent tornadoes in the South, which caused more than 300 deaths and untold property damage, and that of the response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina under the George W. Bush Administration.  The response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) to Hurricane Katrina was inexcusably negligent, as we’ve previously described here.    By contrast, FEMA’s response to the disaster created by the tornadoes in the South has been quite efficient and effective, with even Republican local officials praising the job being done by FEMA.    As a local resident was quoted as saying:

“It ain’t like Katrina,” said Darius Rutley, 21, whose house in Alberta was obliterated. “We’re getting help.”

As Kevin Drum has noted at his Mother Jones blog, the difference in FEMA’s effectiveness to the Southern tornadoes versus Katrina is part of a larger pattern of effective emergency responses during Democratic Administrations and ineffective responses during Republican Administrations.  And the reason for that contrast is that one party has focused on making FEMA an effective government agency, while the other has been blinded by an ideological opposition to government that has served to undermine FEMA’s effectiveness.  The contrast can be seen with regards to:

Appointees: Under President Clinton, FEMA was headed by James Lee Witt, the first FEMA director with emergency planning experience, who turned FEMA into a highly effective agency that successfully handled a number of major disasters. For example, FEMA advance teams were on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 within five hours and three minutes.  President Bush replaced Witt with Joe Allbaugh.  What were Allbaugh’s qualifications to head FEMA?  He had no emergency relief experience, but he was Bush’s campaign chairman!  In 2003, Allbaugh was replaced by Michael Brown, a longtime friend of Allbaugh who also had no emergency relief experience, but was a big time Republican donor and had previously run the International Arabian Horse Association.  The Obama Administration returned to experience rather than cronyism as the basis for selecting a FEMA head. President Obama’s FEMA is run by W. Craig Fugate, who spent eight years as the Director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management and previously worked as emergency manager for Alachua County, Florida for over a decade.

Philosophy: In May 2001, Bush’s FEMA Director Allbaugh testified to a Senate subcommittee that:

Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management.  Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.

Similarly, in April 2001, Bush’s budget director, Mitch Daniels, announced the goal of privatizing much of FEMA’s work. As just one example, in June 2004, FEMA turned the task of developing a hurricane disaster plan for New Orleans over to a private consulting firm named Innovative Emergency Management. In light of the response to Katrina, it appears that if they did come up with a plan, it was not innovative and did not involve any management.

By contrast, President Obama’s FEMA Director, Craig Fugate, has focused not on trying to shrink or eliminate FEMA, but rather on making the agency effective in doing its job of responding to emergencies.

Budgetary Cutbacks: In 2003, FEMA was made part of the Department of Homeland Security.  At the same time, its budget was cut and 500 of its staffers were laid off. In addition, three quarters of the funds that the agency spent on local emergency preparedness and first-responders was shifted to terrorism response rather than natural disasters and accidents.  By contrast, over the past five years, FEMA’s operating budget has increased by nearly $2.5 billion.

The bottom line is that, as the contrast between the Katrina and Southern tornadoes responses shows, a belief by our elected officials in competent, effective government can be the difference between our fellow Americans pulling through disasters as quickly as possible or being left victims of forces far beyond their control.  In other words, in the real world beliefs about government matter.

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