As 50 million East Coast residents brace for Hurricane Sandy’s impact, President Obama has already signed disaster declarations for at least a dozen states, making available the resources and unique coordinating capabilities of the federal government — specifically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA – to assist in the response and recovery.
It’s worth noting that Mitt Romney has said he’d get rid of FEMA and leave states to fend for themselves.
At a CNN-sponsored GOP debate last June, moderator John King asked Romney what he would do to keep FEMA solvent. Romney replied that we need to cut government spending and should “send it back to the states … And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” King looked a bit surprised and followed up to make sure Romney was saying what he appeared to be saying. “Including disaster relief, though?” King asked. Romney answered affirmatively: “We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”
A Romney spokesperson, in a vague statement to the Huffington Post last night, suggested that eliminating FEMA is still Romney’s position.
“Send it back to the states” is a typical conservative talking point, of course. But the states don’t inspire much confidence when it comes to emergency management. FEMA also has a budget of about $6 billion that would disappear from the total pool of money available for disaster relief if the agency were eliminated tomorrow, unless states raised their taxes to make up for the loss, something Romney and his party seem unlikely to support.
Romney, as a former governor, ought to know better.
This is how a federal disaster area gets declared: The governor of a state submits a letter to the local FEMA branch requesting help. “In this request the Governor certifies that the combined local, county and state resources are insufficient and that the situation is beyond their recovery capabilities,” according to FEMA. So every time a governor submits a request for assistance — and there were a record 99 disaster declarations in 2011 — they have to declare they are incapable of handling the situation on their own.
And Romney does know, firsthand. For example, there was a November 2006 chemical plant explosion in Danvers, Mass. “You know, we’ll be looking at what the requirements are from a, from a national standpoint. We do have FEMA here now … The needs of the state or it should be the needs here, if they can be met by the state, they will be. If it’s beyond the needs or the capability of the state, then we’ll go to the federal government,” he said at a press conference.
Several months before that, in May, Romney requested additional money from FEMA to deal with flooding in Lowell, Mass. Before that, in October 2005, Romney requested FEMA help for several counties affected by flooding. Etc. etc.
But perhaps it isn’t fair to criticize Romney over these instances, since he was merely operating under the existing system and naturally wanted to do everything he could do to help his state.
But the idea of sending things back to the state makes little sense if you think about it for even a second. Natural disasters frequently transcend political borders, affecting multiple states simultaneously. Absent a unified chain of command coordinating the response in affected areas, you’d get a patchwork of different responses and approaches, which may be very difficult to coordinate. Poorer states with a weaker tax base may be less able to respond adequately. A national agency can pool and transfer resources across the entire county in a way that states can’t — individual state may go years without a major disaster, whereas FEMA is always busy. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of FEMA, especially after Hurricane Katrina, but they all relate to how it needs to be more effective, not less so.
In a nutshell, disaster preparedness hits at the whole point of having a federal government and federalism. It’s a pretty good illustration of how far to the right the GOP has shifted that Romney wants to send disaster relief to states despite that being an obviously terrible idea. And privatizing disaster relief is even scarier. Who will pay for that? How will contractors be held accountable? Other cases of largely privatized disaster relief have raised serious red flags.
By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, October 29, 2012
Buried in this Saturday’s Washington Post Metro section was a short piece about the request from conservative Virginia Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell for $39 million in federal disaster relief for his state.
This was an initial request for 22 localities in Virginia hard hit by Hurricane Irene. According to the article, other local governments can request more aid and, in addition, McDonnell also asked for Hazard Mitigation Assistance for all Virginia localities.
This comes from a governor who, along with his Republican congressional counterpart Eric Cantor, rails against Washington and “government spending.”
What makes this quite interesting is the position taken by Cantor last week on Federal Emergency Management funding for disasters. We have had a record 66 natural disasters this year and Hurricane Irene was one of the 10 most costly ever.
Cantor, whose district was hit hard by the earthquake and the hurricane, has said that any spending for FEMA should be tied to cuts elsewhere, dollar for dollar, “Just like any family would operate when it’s struck with disaster,” says Cantor. Funny, that is not how he felt back in 2004 when he appealed for money for his district after another hurricane and voted against the amendment by Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas to do require offsets.
Did Eric Cantor ask for dollar for dollar cuts to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did he ask for dollar for dollar cuts to pay for the Bush tax cuts for the millionaires and billionaires? Did he ask for dollar for dollar cuts to pay for increases to homeland security? How about border agents?
Another very conservative congressman from Virginia, Leonard Lance, totally disagrees with Cantor. Help is needed now. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, no friend of government spending, talks as though Eric Cantor has lost his marbles: “Our people are suffering now, and they need support now. And they [Congress] can all go down there and get back to work and figure out budget cuts later.”
It is time for a host of protesters to go to Cantor’s district office and call him on his absurdity. Does he believe we should help the victims of these disasters? Is that what government has done for over 200 years? Does he just want to play politics and delay help? Does he represent the people of Virginia? Does he care about the others who have been the victims of tornadoes and floods across this country?
It reminds me of a Senate debate where a certain Republican from Idaho was complaining about a bill that included funding for rat control in New York City.
“In Idaho, we take care of our own rats,” to which the New York senator replied, “In New York, we take care of our own forest fires.”
That about sums it up.
By: Peter Fenn, U. S. News and World Report, September 6, 2011
So the big, bad storm huffed and puffed and didn’t blow all the houses in.
Reversing Katrina, on the sixth anniversary of that shameful episode in American history, the response to Irene was more powerful than Irene.
And that made some solipsistic Gothamites who missed their subways and restaurants grouchy. There is no greater abuse to New Yorkers than inconvenience.
Once the storm became “Apocalypse Not,” as The New York Post called it, there were those who accused Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey of overreacting to make up for their infamous underreactions to last year’s Christmas blizzard, when Hizzoner was baking in Bermuda and the Guv was playing at Disney World in Florida with his family.
In a Wall Street Journal column, Bret Stephens suggested “a new edition of the Three Little Pigs, this one for the CYA age.”
Ordered to evacuate from his Manhattan home near the Hudson River, Stephens took his family to his parents’ wood-framed house in Connecticut, where a 50-foot elm crashed in the yard. So he went hard on the Chicken Little mayor. “What’s the wisdom of the ages,” Stephens asked, “when a mayor wants to erase the stain of mishandling last winter’s snowstorms by forcibly relocating people from his zone of responsibility to places that are somebody else’s zone of responsibility?”
Should those whose job it is to prepare for the worst be punished because the worst didn’t happen?
What determines your judgment of politicians’ reaction is what happens to you. Those washed out from North Carolina to New Jersey to Vermont don’t think government overreacted. As Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”
Asked at a Saturday hurricane briefing about the response in relation to the debate about the role of government, Christie made it clear that saving lives was the most important thing. The Republican said he didn’t think that Democrats and Republicans were debating this: “Protecting the safety of our citizens is one of the bedrock roles of government.”
Not so bedrock for some of the Flintstones types in Washington who are now hotly debating austerity versus salvation. The impressively hands-on performances of Christie, Bloomberg and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York were not enough to make Tea Partiers, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor root for big government against rampaging nature.
Paul, a libertarian whose scorn of government is so great that he doesn’t even want it to coordinate in natural disasters, insisted that FEMA, which he calls “a giant contributor to deficit financing,” should be shut down.
Though his state of Virginia was the epicenter of an earthquake before being hit by Irene, Cantor has insisted that additional money for cash-strapped FEMA must be offset by spending cuts, echoing his remarks in May that money sent to traumatized tornado victims in Joplin, Mo., would mean cuts somewhere else.
The callous comments about disaster relief in recent days by Cantor, Paul and, believe it or not, the disgraced former FEMA Chief Michael “Heck of a job, Brownie” Brown infuriated Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator touring his inundated state. He told Carl Hulse of The Times that coming together to help on disasters “is what being a nation is about.”
In a briefing at the White House Monday, FEMA Director Craig Fugate said that the lesson of Katrina is for the federal government to “get things going earlier” and not wait until an overwhelmed state “says we’re going to need help.”
Too bad that didn’t occur to W. in 2005. He met with Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Air Force One and correctly assessed that they were not up to the job but then retreated behind clinical states’ rights arguments as a great American city drowned.
In his new memoir, Dick Cheney faults Blanco for dithering and not requesting that the president federalize the response to Katrina. It’s a variation on Rummy shrugging that “You go to war with the army you have.”
Always the hard-liner, Cheney notes: “President Bush has written that he should have sent in U.S. troops earlier, which may be true, but which to my mind lets state authorities off the hook too easily.” Why save lives if you can slap bumbling Democrats around? Proving once more that he is truly delusional, Vice praised President Bush in the wake of Katrina for “reaching out to people who needed to know that their government cared about them.”
The awful hypocrisy is this: As we saw when they spent trillions trying to impose democracy on Iraq and Afghanistan, W. and Cheney believe in big government, in a strong, centralized executive power. But with Katrina, they chose not to use it.
By: Maureen Dowd, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, August 30, 2011
Hurricane Irene obviously has the attention of millions of Americans, but some are handling the threat better than others. On the right, some of the rhetorical responses haven’t cast conservatives in the best light.
Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul wants to eliminate FEMA; congressional Republican leaders are reluctant to approve emergency disaster relief; and Fox News is running pieces like these, calling for the elimination of the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service.
As Hurricane Irene bears down on the East Coast, news stations bombard our televisions with constant updates from the National Hurricane Center.
While Americans ought to prepare for the coming storm, federal dollars need not subsidize their preparations. Although it might sound outrageous, the truth is that the National Hurricane Center and its parent agency, the National Weather Service, are relics from America’s past that have actually outlived their usefulness.
The Fox News piece touts private outlets, including AccuWeather, without alerting readers to a key detail: these private outlets rely on information they receive from the National Weather Service. Indeed, the NWS makes this information available to the private sector for free, since the NWS is a public agency and the data it compiles is public information.
The Fox News item goes on to say, in reference to the Weather Service, “It issues severe weather advisories and hijacks local radio and television stations to get the message out. It presumes that citizens do not pay attention to the weather and so it must force important, perhaps lifesaving, information upon them.”
This is not, by the way, a parody.
Glenn Beck, meanwhile, told his radio audience on Friday that Hurricane Irene “a blessing. It is God reminding you — as was the earthquake last week — it’s God reminding you you’re not in control. Things can happen.”
This divine “blessing” has already killed at least eight people.
By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, August 28, 2011
Hurricane Irene made landfall this morning, hitting North Carolina with sustained winds of 90 miles per hour. Irene was downgraded overnight to a Category 1 hurricane, but it remains a powerful storm capable of doing serious harm.
Obviously, we can all hope the severity of the damage is limited. Regrettably, though, the line on federal disaster aid from congressional Republicans has not changed.
This week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the GOP approach would break from how U.S. policymakers have operated. Whereas Congress used to provide emergency funds after a disaster, without regard for budget caps or offsets, Republicans have said they will no longer accept such an approach — if Democrats want emergency assistance in the wake of a natural disaster, Republicans will insist on attaching some strings to the relief funds.
In this case, the strings are cuts elsewhere in the budget. Or as Cantor’s spokesperson put it, GOP leaders expect “additional funds for federal disaster relief” to be “offset with spending cuts.”
The Republican position is already drawing fire.
“It is sinful to require us to cut somewhere … in order to provide emergency disaster assistance for American citizens,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) told The Huffington Post on Friday.
The Louisiana Democrat pointed out that this weekend is the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated his district and cost the federal government more than $100 billion. That recovery effort would have been delayed “by years” if Congress had required the same kind of spending cuts to offset aid, he said.
“I have been one who has been preparing for the hurricane, trying to give people some comfort. One thing they need to know is the federal government can come to their aid,” Richmond said. “I don’t think we’re in a position, given the rules set up by the majority, that we’re going to be able to come to their aid quickly.”
Perhaps realizing the potential for a political nightmare — Republicans are already unpopular; just wait until they hold hostage relief funds for communities hit by a hurricane — GOP leaders weren’t eager to talk about their position yesterday.
But they didn’t disavow it, either. Cantor’s office rejected questions about “hypothetical federal aid caused by hypothetical damage,” despite the fact that the Majority Leader and his spokesperson were more than willing to discuss the position 24 hours earlier.
House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office was also cagey, saying policymakers will “discuss costs when and if they occur.”
Neither Republican leader offered the correct response, which is, “Of course we’ll do whatever it takes to help the affected communities.”
With any luck, this will be a moot point. If the damage isn’t severe, Congress won’t have to approve emergency relief. At this point, we just don’t know.
But in the event of extensive damage, there’s a real possibility that the first question from congressional Republicans won’t be, “How can we help?” but rather, “What will Democrats give us in exchange for disaster aid?”
By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, August 27, 2011