The truth about FEMA

The truth about FEMA

November 5th, 2012 in Opinion Times

One of Hurricane Katrina's many legacies is the belief that the Federal Emergency Management Agency failed to do its duty in the wake of the natural disaster responsible for nearly 1,800 deaths and over $100 billion in property damage. There is some truth in that view, but FEMA has come a long way since 2005. The retooled agency has responded commendably to the destruction and displacement wrought by Superstorm Sandy. The current effort, not the Katrina debacle, should be how the agency is judged in the future.

By at least one measure, Sandy posed more complex and widespread problems for FEMA than Katrina. The latter caused far more damage -- about twice the current estimate for Sandy -- but this week's storm affected millions more people because it struck one of the most densely populated regions of the nation. FEMA was up to the task. It moved into position ahead of the storm, quickly provided assistance where needed and helped to coordinate state and local assistance efforts. That's exactly what the agency is supposed to do.

Its dereliction of duty in 2005 was tied to politics. FEMA was streamlined and strengthened during the Clinton administration. It was emasculated during the George W. Bush administration, which whacked agency funds in its short-sighted campaign to cut federal spending. That was a terrible idea. When FEMA tried to respond to Katrina, the lack of funds and concomitant reduction in trained personnel left it unable to react quickly, to co-ordinate relief efforts across several states and to provide effective short and long-term relief.

The Bush faithful, of course, preferred to put the blame elsewhere, but even the president's claim that then agency director Michael D. Brown was doing "a heckuva job" could not obscure the obvious. FEMA was poorly led and unable to do its job. The Bush White House and its coterie of conservative budget-cutters -- not the agency itself -- rightly should bear the blame for the Katrina failure.

There's no hint of failure this time. FEMA has done its job, thanks to the Obama administration's insistence that it be funded adequately. Agency teams were in place to help with planning before Sandy barreled ashore. Its workers began providing assistance and coordination as soon as safety officials gave them the all-clear after the storm. And agency teams continue to assist in clean-up efforts even as they arrange loans and other aid so states, cities, businesses and individuals can begin the arduous return to normalcy.

Indeed, FEMA and the Obama administration have responded to Sandy's incursion so well and so positively that it has won unsolicited praise from surprising quarters.

Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a frequent critic of the Democratic president, now praises Obama and FEMA for their response and assistance, much to the chagrin of GOP regulars. Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a strong Mitt Romney supporter, is equally honest. He said the federal response was "incredibly fast and we're very grateful" and described Obama as "direct and personal" in his approach to the disaster. McDonnell pointedly added that during natural disasters "partisanship goes out the window." That's how it should be.

The question, of course, is whether or not a Romney administration -- if it was in office -- would respond as well in similar circumstances. The answer, it seems certain, is no.

Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan, his running mate, are on record as opposing a major federal role in disaster relief. Romney said last year that "we cannot afford to do those things [disaster relief] without jeopardizing the future of our kids." He said states and the private sector should take the lead in providing such assistance. That might sound good on the stump, but as Gov. Christie no doubt can testify, a state as bruised and battered as New Jersey was by Sandy is in no position to provide help immediately after a huge storm. Only the federal government has the resources to do so.

Ryan's view of federal disaster aid is more draconian than Romney's. Earlier this year, he tried -- and thankfully failed -- to derail plans to increase disaster spending. Wiser legislators in both parties put aside partisanship to approve the legislation. It was a timely decision. Funds now being used in the Sandy relief effort probably would not be available had Ryan's view prevailed.

Romney and Ryan can turn on a dime, though. Since Sandy hit, they've replaced criticism of FEMA and the federal role in disaster aid with platitudes about providing adequate funding. That's window dressing,. Romney, last week at least, still wouldn't say whether he, as president, would honor the conservative Republican demand that any help for disaster victims be underwritten by cutting other programs in the federal budget. His silence is telling.

A stronger, adequately funded FEMA has proved its value in the wake of Sandy. Those -- like Romney and Ryan -- who argue that eliminating, downsizing or privatizing the agency would not negatively impact Americans willfully overlook the truths of the past week.