The tab for Hurricane Sandy’s mammoth march of destruction isn’t in, but economists estimate damages of as much as $50 billion. One of the most devastating storms to hit the United States in decades forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate, cut power to as many as 8 million people, canceled more than 10,000 flights, left more than 10 million public transit users without rides, and killed at least 50 people, many hit by falling trees.
The calamity has also, mercifully, limited the presidential campaign. President Obama returned to Washington to meet with federal emergency officials. His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, officially suspended campaigning, turning a planned rally this week in Kettering, Ohio, into a relief effort for storm victims. Amid so much suffering, scoring political points seemed petty and inappropriate.
Even so, the nation’s ability to navigate this storm will depend largely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And the government’s lead agency in dealing with such disasters is hardly immune to political sniping.
Mr. Romney, during a Republican primary debate last year, advocated eliminating federal emergency management. He suggested that any devolution of authority from the federal government to the states, and then to the private sector, was all to the good.
Such myopic thinking elevates ideology over pragmatism, and would prove disastrous during a crisis such as this. This week, Mr. Romney ignored repeated questions from reporters about whether his proposed budget cuts would undermine FEMA.
Republicans and Democrats agree that national security is the federal government’s top priority. A natural disaster such as Sandy brutally reminds us that FEMA contributes much to that mission.
Only the federal government can marshal and deploy the enormous resources that are needed to minimize the destruction and death caused by a sweeping natural disaster, and to help communities in its path rebuild from the ruins.
States that can barely balance their budgets certainly don’t have the resources to do it. Nor can they, acting alone, plan and coordinate relief efforts for a “Frankenstorm” that does not recognize state or municipal boundaries.
FEMA botched its last major test: Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Problems in providing communications, building emergency housing, and delivering relief exposed a mismanaged, incompetent, and underfunded agency.
Since then, however, FEMA has made significant strides, including an improved supply management system, despite Republican attempts to cut its funding to irresponsible levels. Americans will survive Sandy far better than if emergency relief were delivered by a hodgepodge of underfunded state efforts.
Even proponents of limited government such as Mr. Romney ought to concede that coping with a natural disaster such as Sandy is as much a federal responsibility as, say, stopping an invasion by another country.
Fortunately for millions of Americans on the East Coast, ideologues who see no real role for the federal government have not yet relegated the nation’s emergency management to individual states that are too unprepared or ill equipped to act.