Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Record: Politics and storms

For reasons no one can even try to explain, there has been an odd connection of late between hurricanes and politics.
Think back to 2005, when President George W. Bush was criticized for how his administration responded to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
Just around a year ago, Hurricane Irene caused $19 billion in damages and widespread flooding in New Jersey. That storm also prompted Governor Christie to utter one of his more memorable lines: "Get the hell off the beach."
And this week, another hurricane, Isaac, is hitting New Orleans, but only after it prompted Republicansto delay their convention in Tampa by one day. How the administration of President Obama responds to this latest storm certainly will be discussed and may very well affect his reelection campaign. Hurricanes, after all, are bipartisan affairs. And that is how they should be dealt with.
For the first 150 years or so of our nation's life, the federal government's response to public disasters was largely piecemeal. Legislation was specifically passed and money granted to combat a natural emergency whenever one occurred. That began to change in the 1920s when Herbert Hoover, who was then U.S. commerce secretary, was charged with organizing relief efforts in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Hoover set up health units to combat malaria and other diseases and gained widespread publicity for his humanitarian work. Assuming the presidency in 1929, Hoover eventually created the Reconstruction Finance Corp. to dispense federal dollars in the wake of disasters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency came about in 1978 with the express mission of responding to national disasters. The agency's proposed budget for the 2013 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 is an estimated $13 billion. In the fiscal year that ended last September, FEMA responded to 98 national disasters, including Hurricane Irene. It provided $5.6 billion in grants nationwide, primarily for emergency housing, unemployment assistance, debris cleaning and the rebuilding of schools, roads and other public projects.
As is always the case, how money is spent is a concern. The FBI investigated multiple scams connected to the Katrina relief effort, and we saw recently how some full-time officials in Paterson, including the mayor, improperly collected overtime pay for helping the city cope with Hurricane Irene. But those problems, as serious as they are, should not detract from the overall work FEMA does.
When it comes to government spending and the federal bureaucracy, the political lines are pretty starkly drawn. Republicans want to reduce both the size and cost of government, thinking that many of its social endeavors can be better handled privately. Democrats, who convene next week in North Carolina, see government as a way to fix many social ills and consider the GOP's view insensitive.
There is little room for compromise here, especially in today's climate of super partisanship.
That's understood. However, let's also understand that one small concession to sensibility would be agreement between Democrats and Republicans that responding quickly and effectively to national disasters is a proper function of the federal government. That is what the public expects, especially the family whose home was just destroyed by a hurricane or completely flooded by a raging river.

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