But, with the presidential election less than a week away, this is also a time for politics. The central debate of the campaign has been about the role and size of the federal government. Nothing could shed light on that question more than an unfolding natural disaster.
Seven years ago, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, we saw what happens when the federal government fails to respond to catastrophe. Devastation was inevitable, given the nature of the storm and the geographic idiosyncrasies of New Orleans. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), ensnared with ambiguous lines of authority and hobbled by incompetent management, was slow to respond. Particularly in the critical days after Katrina struck, overwhelmed local and state officials couldn’t get the help they needed.
Those failures prompted a serious effort to reform FEMA. Congress clarified the agency’s authority, which had been muddled ever since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security following 9/11. Under a new law, the director gained cabinet status, complete with direct access to the president, during emergencies. The new laws also gave FEMA the ability to provide money and assistance earlier, even before formalized requests from local and state officials. In 2006, President Bush replaced Michael Brown, an unqualified political crony, with the highly regarded David Paulison, former head of fire-rescue for Miami-Dade County. Upon taking office, President Obama selected as Paulison’s successor Craig Fugate, who had been Florida’s director of emergency management and won praise there for his handling of multiple hurricane emergencies.
By nearly all accounts, the combination of congressional action and professional management in the post-Katrina era has reinvigorated the agency.
It’s way, way too soon to know whether FEMA will perform as well this time. Across the northeast, the rain is still falling and the wind is still howling. As Katrina survivors will tell you, the aftermath can be as brutal as the storm itself. But the early signs are certainly promising. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican and frequent surrogate for Mitt Romney, offered effusive praise for the federal response (and the president) in an interview with the Today show:The federal government’s response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president, personally, he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area. … Last night, I was on the phone with FEMA at 2 a.m. this morning to answer the questions they needed answered to get that designation and the president has been outstanding in this. The folks at FEMA, Craig Fugate and his folks have been excellent.
In Maryland, Governor Martin O’Malley has praised FEMA for providing assistance before the storm arrived. On Tuesday afternoon, I spoke to Joshua Sharfstein, an old friend who is now the state’s Secretary of Health. After 36 straight hours in the state’s emergency operations center, he echoed O’Malley’s comments, explaining thatthe whole time I was there, a FEMA representative was on site, helping with preparations—including coordinating assets from unaffected states that were brought to Maryland for help. We also had a liaison from HHS to help with medical issues.
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- antinwo said: Storms like this show us why we don’t need the government. If everyone was more prepared themselves instead of relying on the gov’t to save them, we’d all be better off. Instead, gov’t coddles us and makes us dependent and wanting more
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