Krugman

The storm over FEMA blows again

The New York TimesNovember 5, 2012 

As Sandy barreled toward New Jersey, there were hopeful mutters on the right to the effect that it might become President Barack Obama’s Katrina, with voters blaming him for the damage, and that this might matter on Election Day. Sorry, guys: Polls show overwhelming approval for Obama’s handling of the storm, and a significant rise in his overall favorability ratings.

And he deserves the bump. For the response to Sandy, like the success of the auto bailout, is a demonstration that Obama’s philosophy of government – which holds that the government can and should provide crucial aid in times of crisis – works. And conversely, the contrast between Sandy and Katrina demonstrates that leaders who hold government in contempt cannot provide that aid when it is needed.

So, about that response: Much of the greater New York area (including my house) is still without power; gasoline is scarce; and some outlying areas are feeling neglected. Right-wing news media are portraying these continuing difficulties as a disaster comparable to, nay greater than, the aftermath of Katrina. But there’s really no comparison.

I could do a point-by-point – and it’s definitely worth it, if you’re curious, to revisit the 2005 Katrina timeline to get a sense of just how bad the response really was. But for me the difference is summed up in two images. One is the nightmare at the New Orleans convention center, where thousands were stranded for days amid inconceivable squalor, an outrage that all of America watched live on TV, but to which top officials seemed oblivious. The other is the scene in flooded Hoboken, with the National Guard moving in the day after the storm struck to deliver food and water and rescue stranded residents.

The point is that after Katrina the government seemed to have no idea what it was doing; this time it did. And that’s no accident: The federal government’s ability to respond effectively to disaster collapses when anti-government Republicans hold the White House, and recovers when Democrats take it back.

Consider, in particular, the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Under President George H.W. Bush, FEMA became a dumping ground for unqualified political hacks. Faced with a major test in the form of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the agency failed completely.

Then Bill Clinton came in, put FEMA under professional management, and saw the agency’s reputation restored.

Given this experience, you might have expected George W. Bush to preserve Clinton’s gains. But no: He appointed his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, to head the agency, and Allbaugh immediately signaled his intention both to devolve disaster relief to the state and local level and to downgrade the whole effort, declaring, “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” After Allbaugh left for the private sector, he was replaced with Michael “heckuva job” Brown, and the rest is history.

Like Clinton, Obama restored FEMA’s professionalism, effectiveness and reputation. But would Mitt Romney destroy the agency again? Yes, he would. As everyone now knows – despite the Romney campaign’s efforts to Etch A Sketch the issue away – during the primary Romney used language almost identical to Allbaugh’s, declaring that disaster relief should be turned back to the states and to the private sector.

The best line on this, I have to admit, comes from Stephen Colbert: “Who better to respond to what’s going on inside its own borders than the state whose infrastructure has just been swept out to sea?”

Look, Republicans love to quote Ronald Reagan’s old joke that the most dangerous words you can hear are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Of course they’ll do their best, whenever they’re in power, to destroy an agency whose job is to say exactly that. And yes, it’s hypocritical that the right-wing news media are now attacking Obama for, they say, not helping enough people.

If Romney had been president these past four years the federal response to disasters of all kinds would have been far weaker than it was. There would have been no auto bailout, because Romney opposed the federal financing that was crucial to the rescue. And FEMA would have remained mired in Bush-era incompetence.

So this storm probably won’t swing the election – but if it does, it will do so for very good reasons.

The New York Times

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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