Like most people, my mom and I had put off leaving until August 28, the last day possible. By that point, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had issued the city’s first mandatory citywide evacuation order. By 10 a.m. we were in our car and getting the hell out. Katrina was coming.
Despite all we went through that month—the slow and endless car rides, the friends’ house–hopping and in-car-sleeping that, in retrospect, was homelessness, the uncertainty of the futures of our jobs, schools, and the community—we were the fortunate ones. By leaving, we had ensured our safety and put the worst behind us. I wish that I could say the same for the 20 percent of our neighbors—most of them elderly or disabled—who had stayed.
That summer, the media circulated many images of left-behind residents “robbing” local grocery stores and pharmacies, making them out as some sort of post-apocalyptic criminals. Yet we seldom heard about the reason they almost always had to do this—the sweeping incompetence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, which made stealing the only available means of survival.
FEMA hadn’t always been this way. Since being established as its own federal agency in 1979 by President Carter (and elevated to cabinet rank by Clinton in 1996), it had earned and maintained a reputation for consistent results and bi-partisan praise.
But President Bush changed all of that. Upon founding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, a potpourri of anti-terrorism organizations like the Secret Service and the TSA were, for some reason, thrown together with FEMA. Though FEMA had taken on anti-terrorism responsibilities in the past, its primary purpose had always been, as its name suggests, emergency management. The misalignment between DHS’s anti-terrorism mission and FEMA’s emergency management focus gave rise to poor decision-making. Cuts to FEMA’s funding on the grounds that it would be best to restore “the predominant role of state and local response to most disasters,” would, in particular, lead to disaster.
In theory, small government did seem like a good approach for moments of crisis. It’s true that locals will know what’s best for their communities at any particular time and are the ones who probably want to help out the most. But while locals have the information, it is the federal government that has the most resources. Bush, having founded what is now the third-largest federal agency, should have known this.
Sure enough, this “small government” approach played out terribly in practice. In the days that followed Katrina, the feeble sub-agency cited security concerns in categorically rejecting most personnel and equipment donations, stopping the Red Cross from distributing food, turning away five hundred Floridian rescue boats, and preventing local officials from accepting aid themselves—all while providing next to no assistance itself. Thanks to Bush’s reorganization, FEMA’s response became a tragedy of its own.
Under President Obama, however, the federal response to Sandy—undeniably of the “big government” variety—has been a radical improvement. Rather than use the bully pulpit to criticize local officials and impede assistance, Obama has urged local, state, nonprofit, and private sector leaders to cut through red tape and get as much help to the devastated areas as possible. He has toured distressed areas and made himself an available and effective resource for state leaders.
In the words of Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—on Fox News, no less—President Obama has done “a great job,” both in terms of expediting New Jersey’s designation as a “disaster area,” and helping the state receive federal resources. The President has acted in exactly the way that a leader should, and has ensured that the rest of the federal government, FEMA especially, follows suit. Moreover, despite the upcoming election, he has not played up the disaster for politics, choosing to instead take days off from campaigning to focus on the storm. “Right now our number-one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives,” he said last Monday. “The election will take care of itself next week.”
It’s all a far cry from Bush’s response in 2005, and an even further one from the response we could later see from prospective president Mitt Romney.
The worst isn’t even that Romney has, up until last week, repeatedly affirmed his determination to shut down FEMA and make states and the private sector responsible for emergency relief. No, it’s that last week, right after Sandy hit— right when Obama was busy coordinating disaster relief in DC—Romney was putting together a hasty “storm relief event” to donate food and supplies to hurricane victims via the Red Cross.
So far so good, right? Here’s why it’s a problem: While Romney encouraged attendees to bring canned goods, bottled water, and blankets to donate, supplies were provided for attendees who didn’t bring anything. You read that right—Romney provided supplies for attendees to “donate” back to him to donate to the Red Cross.
More importantly, the Red Cross doesn’t even want food and supply donations; it wants—needs—money. Romney should have known that his donations will ultimately have to be repackaged and reshipped, draining the organization’s time, money, and resources. Though he did make a personal donation of an undisclosed amount to the Red Cross he nevertheless chose to stage what was essentially a photo op, burdening the Red Cross with his thoughtless gifts.
In light of the increasingly severe effects of climate change, it’s likely that this is what a Romney presidency would look like—a reappearance of misaligned incentives and misguided goals that work to prolong disasters, not help fix them. Katrina was a tragedy, but its aftermath was the true disaster. Our country can’t afford to let that kind of aftermath unfold again.
Anastasia Golovashkina is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.