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Federal Disaster Relief Intrudes on Election Debate Over Size of Government

An emergency declaration from the White House allowed federal money and responders to flow even before Sandy made landfall.

Nov 5, 2012
Damaged caused to houses from Hurricane Sandy on the New Jersey Coast

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie captured national headlines—and conservative scorn—for praising President Obama and opening his arms to federal assistance as his state recovers from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

How, right-wing advocates ask, could a fierce White House critic and fiscal conservative like Christie seek federal money so brazenly?

The size of government has been a key issue throughout this election, but as voters head to the polls on Tuesday, Sandy is adding a new wrinkle to the debate. As more federal agencies get involved in the cleanup and recovery, the discussion is likely to intensify, no matter who wins the White House.

Much of the focus has been on the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA. But the federal response to Sandy also includes the U.S. Departments of Transportation, Energy and Health and Human Services, and other, less prominent federal agencies that will be called in as the recovery continues.

Some of the services provided by these agencies have faced cuts in recent years, as Republican members of the House of Representatives tried to pare down a government they say has grown too big for its own good.

The budget plan drawn up by Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, cut 62 percent from a budget category called community and regional development—which includes FEMA, flood insurance and some rural development programs—according to the nonpartisan think tank Third Way. Nearly half of that money, said Third Way senior fellow David Kendall, goes to disaster relief and insurance.

Although it's unclear exactly which programs would be cut, Kendall said "there's no way they could make those cuts without taking a big chunk out of disaster relief."

The federal government's role in disaster relief has been defined in the last century by a series of bills, notably the 1988 Stafford Emergency Assistance and Disaster Relief Act. Washington currently spends about $18 billion a year on relief efforts.

Conservatives argue that much of the federal government's work could be handled at the state level. At a Republican primary debate in June, eventual nominee Mitt Romney said it would be the "right direction" to direct some federal responsibilities to the states and "even better" to send them to the private sector. When asked by moderator and CNN anchor John King if that included disaster relief, Romney said he didn't want the country to incur more debts to pass on to future generations.

Sandra Schneider, author of the book "Dealing With Disaster: Public Management in Crisis Situations," said states already play a powerful role in emergencies.

"The federal response is broad, because it's designed to accomplish everything and coordinate everyone," said Schneider, a professor at Michigan State University's school of political science. "But it's predicated on local, state and regional governments and even the private sector."

After most disasters, local and state governments assess damage and mobilize their own responses before seeking federal help in the form of an emergency declaration, Schneider said. In the case of Sandy, the White House signed an emergency declaration that allowed money and responders to start flowing to New Jersey and other East Coast states ahead of the storm's landfall.

In the early stages of a recovery, the federal government's primary role is to act as an "overseer" that can work across state lines and supply the immediate cash and manpower that states may not have, Schneider said.

FEMA plays many roles, from setting up medical care centers to removing debris to evacuating citizens. Other agencies step in quickly, too. The Army Corps of Engineers tackles a range of issues, notably "dewatering" flooded areas. The military coordinates transportation and offers other assistance. On Friday it began trucking fuel to beleaguered New York residents who have seen gas stations running empty.

The Transportation Department also responded immediately, sending $13 million from a Federal Highway Administration emergency relief program to New York and Rhode Island, with more money expected. The Energy Department has helped respond to widespread power outages.

After the immediate recovery, Schneider said the government's role shifts to "trying to determine the loss of life, property and getting things back to a state where people can resume more of a normal life." That means the involvement of a slew of federal departments, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Can Private Sector Do It Better?

The New York Times tackled the big government issue directly last week in an editorial headlined "A Big Storm Requires Big Government." Conservatives responded to the editorial by saying that the disaster relief roles could be filled by state governments that are closer to the problem, or even private companies with more resources and flexibility.

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