The role of government has been a big topic in this Presidential campaign, with contrasting models characterizing it as either a compassionate servant of the national community, or an indolent, sloppy public enemy number-one. Although the public sector has already shrunk by some 500,000 jobs since 2009, it is clear that the GOP longs to further restructure government with all the sobriety of the Texas chain-saw massacre.
Among the services specifically identified for excision by Mr. Romney is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It is, after all, a spawn of the Carter era, raised to cabinet status by Mr. Clinton, and then demoted into a branch of Homeland Security by President Bush, the Younger. Its leading bureaucrat at that time would have been suited to respond to a crisis in the thoroughbred horse sector, but was woefully ill-equipped for the greater task of leading assistance to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina. The current Administration re-energized the agency, and appointed an actual careerist in emergency response, who had previously been appointed Florida's disaster chief by then-Governor Jeb Bush (bi-partisans, take note).
FEMA looks like an agency that can be jettisoned, as it's only needed episodically whenever a flood ravages the Mississippi Valley, say, or a hurricane or tornado rumbles through the southeast, or, dare I say it a big one rattles us locally. Thus it was, during an interim period between disasters, that the aspiring candidate Mr. Romney called-for the agency's elimination, by name, saying further that "any time you can send these things back to the states, then that's the right direction." He further suggested that the private sector might be even better to handle the job.
Trouble is, when you need FEMA, you Really Need FEMA. As our nation becomes ever more heavily populated and interwoven, disasters aren't becoming less difficult or expensive to fix. By analogy, rural communities can get by with a volunteer fire-fighting corps, but cities really do benefit from a professional, centralized, governmental Fire Department. And I will stick my neck out and say that natural disasters aren't getting any smaller, either driven by the Phenomenon That Shall Not Speak Its Name.
Another problem with state-only administration of emergencyresponse is that calamities are notoriously unimpressed by state lines. The Mississippi River system touches at least eighteen states, for example, and a typical east coast hurricane will impact at least that many separate jurisdictions.
Finally, let's assume the Feds punt FEMA to the cash-strapped states who will be there to catch it? Where would it fit, say, in the budget-sinkhole of our fair state? Further, if somebody Was there, why would it be more efficient to have 50 stand-by clusters of lesser expertise, than one mobile capability?
Enter Frankenstorm Sandy, an horrendous amalgamation of a late-day hurricane, a Canadian blizzard and some other meteorological feature I don't recall. It made landfall among the Mid-Atlantic states, has proceeded to inundate New York, cut power to many millions of Americans, and dump several feet of snow in the Appalachians so far. New Jersey has been decimated and I suspect the only reason we haven't heard from my poor native sand-spit of Delaware is that it may have been washed-out to sea entirely.
By all accounts, including that of NJ Republican Governor Christie, FEMA's diverse on-site assistance, financial relief services and coordination of/with local jurisdictions have worked very well to ameliorate the suffering that has befallen the east this week and may visit itself upon us one day. As someone with a daughter in New York City, I am particularly grateful that my tax dollars will flow there, this time. It provides a timely lesson in why we have Government and how it can serve our most dire needs as a national community. Yes, it costs tax money, but it is also the kind of insurance policy whose existence can be a literal matter of life-or-death. To eliminate it would allow the unthinking to do the unthinkable.
We would ignore this recent lesson at our great peril. Please be sure to vote next week.