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Friday, October 21, 2016

Bipartisan Sanity — And U.S. History — Discredit Anti-Government Ranting

Pandering to the anti-government ideology of the Tea Party, Washington politicians may disparage the federal role in disaster relief — with Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) going so far as to suggest, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, that there should be none whatsoever. But why listen to an extremist Congressman who has never been responsible for anything bigger than his own ambitions, when governors of both parties, who must oversee the welfare of millions of people in their states, are now praising the federal response to the storm?

None other than that current icon of conservatism, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, spoke to ABC News as the hurricane battered his state’s coastal region, explaining that federal assistance as the storm approached had been “great” — and that he would soon be calling Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to ask for some more help.” The same sentiments were voiced by the chief executives of both parties in state capitals up and down the East Coast, all of whom understand that the worst consequences of disaster often arrive days after the sensational media coverage has ended.

Compassionate or callous, these governors know that they could scarcely overcome the emergencies and disasters that so often beset us without the skills, resources, and sheer power of the United States government. Although would-be president Paul recently implied that federal disaster assistance dates only back to the late ’70s, the truth is that mutual aid to stricken communities, channeled through government, has characterized American society since the dawn of the republic.

The first national response to a local disaster was a bill known as the Congressional Act of 1803 — during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Passed following a terrible fire in Portsmouth, N.H., the act provided recovery assistance to the affected citizens and their town. Again and again during the century that followed, Congress passed similar legislation when disaster struck, until progressive administrations in the 20th century began to create the means for a rapid, reliable response that went beyond the ad hoc distribution of federal funds.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, that effort gained momentum during the New Deal, when President Roosevelt used disaster reconstruction projects to help employ millions of jobless Americans in rebuilding roads, bridges, schools, and other public facilities that had been washed away by floods or destroyed by tornadoes.

In 1979, President Carter created FEMA, answering the plea of governors who could no longer cope with the patchwork of federal agencies — from the Defense Department to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to the Federal Insurance Administration and the National Weather Service — whose responsibilities included some aspect of emergency services or disaster relief. Carter had served as governor of Georgia himself before his elevation to the White House, so he understood their complaints and knew why they needed a coordinated federal response in times of serious trouble. By bringing the various agencies together under a single authority, he began to make that possible.

But it wasn’t until President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt, an official who had broad experience handling disaster preparedness and relief in Arkansas, that FEMA began to function in a modern and effective way. Clinton remains proud of Witt’s tenure to this day because FEMA showed how efficient and humane government can be at its best — which only happens, of course, under an administration that respects and seeks to fulfill that mission. What became obvious when Hurricane Katrina struck under the following administration was the opposite maxim: that a president with no respect for government’s fundamental purpose will botch the job at great cost in lives and dollars. When someone like Ron Paul denigrates FEMA’s reputation, as he did the other day, he is talking about how his own party ran the agency. President Bush slashed FEMA’s preparedness programs, pulled it out of the cabinet, and placed it under the control of political appointees in the Department of Homeland Security. They notoriously had no idea how to confront disasters whether manmade or natural, except to make them worse.

Despite his seeming diffidence, President Obama plainly understands what government must be able to do in these circumstances. He first proved that when he appointed Craig Fugate, an administrator with deep experience as Florida’s director of emergency management, to run FEMA in 2009, rather than a hapless political crony. As the hurricane struck the Ameican coastline, Obama remained in constant communication with governors in the stricken states. When he visited FEMA headquarters over the weekend. He warned that the hurricane would continue to inflict damage on the states with flooding, power outages, and damage to property and infrastructure that will take many months to repair. And he personally commended the exhausted FEMA personnel, telling them that every state and local official with whom he had spoken during the emergency had assured him that the agency’s performance was “outstanding.”

Those public servants deserved his congratulations, even if the hurricane did not turn out to be the advertised Armageddon. The open question is whether FEMA, which is swiftly running out of money, can obtain the resources necessary to function adequately when the next ruinous disaster occurs. Chances are that the budget-cutting termites who control Congress — who are promoting the disintegration of infrastructure, science, and the nation’s legacy — will instead inflict still more destruction from within.

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Copyright 2011 The National Memo
  • patg

    It amazes that congressman who in a weeks’ time saw his district experience a severe earthquake AND a hurricane then call for cuts to FEMA. What is even more amazing is the fools in his district will probably re-elect him.

  • kurt.lorentzen

    I agree that cuts must be made, but FEMA is not the place. I don’t know how to administer it or to decide who should or should not be recipients of aid under the program (If you live in a flood plain, you accept the risks of not paying for flood insurance and you have flood damage should the taxpayers bail you out?). But victims of disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes which are unpredictable should be considered to be the victims that they are and worthy of assistance. Only the government has the resources (including national guard and even the regular branches of the military) at its disposal to respond at any necessary level.
    On the other hand, I don’t believe Ron Paul to be callous or to lack compassion. I see him as a realist who’s core beliefs include small government and the common-sense addage that people ought to be responsible for themselves, and I agree with that philosophy in general. But he’s wrong on this one. Naural disasters occur through no fault of the victims, and we can afford to help those victims as a community project.

  • bharshav

    Eric Cantor claims that we can’t provide relief from the damage caused by Hurricane Irene unless we cut spending somewhere else.
    First, it’s a moral outrage that these characters will use any excuse to cut social programs.
    Second, why is it that we’re ready to re-build schools in Iraq and Afghanistan — without cutting other spending — but we can’t do it in places like Joplin, Missouri?

  • GaryBeene

    The following excerpt is from Chapter 21 of THE SEEDS WE SOW, KINDNESS THAT FED A HUNGRY WORLD regarding the clean-up effort after the 1938 hurricane that crushed much of New England:
    “Power lines lay on the ground and roads were impassable for months. In typical New Deal fashion, the federal government funded a huge relief effort to help New England dig out. The Feds created the Northeast Timber Salvage Administration (NTSA) and attached the program to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They began immediately clearing the roads and trying to get the power grid back on-line. The NTSA set up 275 sawmills across the region, and by the summer of 1939 had salvaged 600 million board feet of lumber. That sounds like a whole heck of a lot of wood, but an estimated 1.65 billion board feet remained laying on the ground.
    As Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace knew that dumping that much timber on the market would bankrupt the entire lumber industry. He well remembered the lessons of the agricultural markets in the 1920s. The question remained, however, what could they do with all that wood? It had been an exceptionally dry winter and spring since the hurricane had hit. The debris field, which included thousands of square miles of forest, was one lightening strike or careless match away from an unimaginable conflagration.
    The decision was made to deploy the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) on an enormous clean-up operation. They would cut the slash from the down trees, and then sink the massive timbers in area lakes and ponds for salvage and use at a later date. (During World War II the United States military required enormous quantities of lumber for barracks and packing crates. 631 million board feet of lumber was retrieved from the lakes and ponds of New England for the war effort.)”
    The chapter also goes on to tell of future Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug’s personal involvement in this government sponsored relief effort. Congressman Paul is either ignorant of our history or willfully misleading his followers.