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.