Since Monday afternoon, I have travelled back in time -- to the pre-electric grid era. I am in that 85% of Long Islanders whose electrical power was knocked out by Sandy. Nor do I have any cell phone power. Nor internet service (even if I could get power.) And LIPA estimates it could take 7 to 10 days to get power back. Yet, I am incredibly lucky. No tree fell on my house. My basement wasn’t flooded. The power is on at my local library, where I am writing this post. And only falling trees took my power down -- not the chain of explosions that blew up transformers in a spectacular display further up the Island.
But even those who didn’t escape unscathed have the good fortune to be living in a country with a functioning disaster response function. That may soon go away.
The Disaster Response Ecosystem: Public, Private, Individual, & Collective
Disaster response in the U.S. is like an ecosystem, composed of a web of private and public entities. There are the privately owned power companies -- like Con Ed in New York City, LIPA on Long Island -- that are responsible for preparing for threats to the electrical supply in advance of a weather disaster like a hurricane and executing the response after the disaster has hit. Insurance companies assess the damage and (hopefully) compensate policyholders for damage so they can rebuild.
On the state and local level, there are local fire, police and EMT services, as well as county and municipal maintenance crews. There are the state offices of emergency management. Private charities like the Red Cross bring in relief supplies and aid in rescue operations.
But overarching all -- coordinating efforts on many levels -- is the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA. (National Guard units and the Coast Guard may be called into play, as well.) FEMA also provides assessments for the federal disaster relief to individuals to help cover costs their insurance companies don’t indemnify. (The coverage hole is widening, as insurers stare down the climate change gun barrel.)
FEMA has come a long way since Michael “Heckuva Job Brownie” Brown, the FEMA director under George W. Bush, so bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina. (He’s now criticizing Obama for responding “too pro-actively” to Superstorm Sandy.) At that time, the agency suffered sorely from the upside-down notion about government’s role that is still current in Republican circles (and infects portions of Democratic policy, as well): that government exists mainly to enrich private contractors, subsidize favored business sectors, control dissent and private behavior (e.g. in the bedroom) -- and otherwise should be busy with cutting taxes on the wealthy and shrinking public benefits. It’s a philosophy that feeds corruption. (Those on the Right who criticize FEMA for corruption conveniently forget that it flourished under the Bush Administration, but has largely disappeared under Obama.)
An Ounce of Disaster Prevention Is Worth A Pound of Reaction
But disaster response is like medicine -- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As we move deeper into the “new normal” of extreme weather brought on by anthropogenic global warming, other arms of the federal government are becoming more critical: most saliently NOAA, which monitors climate change, and the National Weather Service. Both have suffered cuts over the past two years that have compromised their functioning. A European forecasting agency predicted Sandy a good ten days ahead of the storm.
I saw that report -- so why, oh why, did I fail to get that canister of propane for my camp stove I’d been meaning to get since Hurricane Irene? Because I’m as prey to complacency and procrastination as anyone.
But when I fail to prepare or take preventive action, I hurt only myself. When the federal government fails to prepare, take preventive action, or respond, it hurts everybody, businesses and citizens alike. Sandy is estimated to cost some $10 billion in insured losses and upwards of another $40 billion in damage to the public infrastructure businesses and individuals depend on. Workers who can’t get to work or whose places of employment have shut down are losing pay they may critically depend on for basic survival. Small businesses are often underinsured for disaster, operating as they as they frequently do on a desperate margin of viability to begin with.
The Fraying Web Of Emergency Management Could Get More Threadbare
If any part of this complex web of disaster response goes down, the entire community is at risk. And in an era of slash-taxes-and-spending, even contributions from private companies and citizens are important.
It’s wonderful when companies like Walmart, CVS and Western Union act like responsible corporate citizens and donate generously to relief. But they have neither the expertise nor the mandate to coordinate the disaster relief millions depend on in a catastrophe like Sandy. Nor should they have to shoulder that burden. Do we want our emergency management ecosystem to depend on private charity?
But that might just happen if Governor Romney and Senator Ryan win the election and/or the Congress remains dominated (House) or paralyzed (Senate) by Tea Party Republicans. Just consider the following:
Romney has pledged to slash FEMA -- during the current campaign, he is on record for saying that he doesn’t think the federal government should have a role in disaster relief. He wants to hand it over to states, funneling federal taxes into state coffers, where it can be used any way a state legislature decides. That could be for emergency response -- or to plug cash-starved budgets, or to further cut taxes. Do we really want to condemn the citizens of, say, Texas or Oklahoma (which have more than their share of natural disasters) to twist in the hurricane winds of disaster response austerity?
At the recent campaign event hastily reconfigured as a “disaster relief event” for the Red Cross, Romney was asked 11 times by reporters to clarify his stance on FEMA. He ignored the questions. Tellingly, his own campaign had to spend $5000 on buying peanut butter and other canned goods for the occasion because they were afraid their supporters wouldn’t pony up enough “relief” for Romney’s photo op next to the pile of cans. (It was as hapless as it was cynical. For one thing, the Red Cross has specifically asked donors to send money, not canned goods. For another, it highlighted that even Romney’s campaign doesn’t trust private citizens to come through for disaster relief.
Romney, Ryan and the Republicans in Congress would slash funds for forecasting extreme weather events.
Our weather satellites are on their last legs. The GAO has warned that “there will likely be a gap in satellite data lasting 17 to 53 months” before new satellites can replace them. Last year, Congress cut more than $150 million from President Obama’s funding request for the program.
Ryan’s proposed budget could slice more than $250 million from NOAA’s satellite program, further endangering it. (Some have suggested that the Republican hostility to weather satellites stems from their use to gather climate change data.) And the “fiscal cliff’ facing the Congress would slash another $182 million. NOAA warns that the cuts would slice the accuracy of forecasts for major storms in half.
Romney and Ryan want to privatize disaster response.
They believe the profit motive should rule relief. But if profit rules, the price of supplies and operations in a disaster could skyrocket, subject to the laws of supply and demand. Any company that didn’t put maximizing profit ahead of the common good would be failing its capitalist mission (unless it were a B-Corp, but that’s not likely under a Republican administration.) If it were a publicly traded corporation, it could be sued by its shareholders.
Smart Grid or Dumb Greed?
Privatizing government functions has a spotty track record at best -- and a record of rampant corruption and incompetence at worst. And when it comes to something as critical as disaster relief, saving money (to increase profits) doesn’t translate into saving lives.
Those transformer explosions that plunged many Long Islanders and New Yorkers into darkness may have been averted if we had a smart grid in place. Whether Romney would or would not support the building of a smart grid is not clear. He’s been hostile to other green tech initiatives. But Obama has a track record: his stimulus package invested nearly $4 billion in smart grid development.
As we face a more uncertain climate, one subject to more extreme and frequent weather disasters, we need to make our disaster response ecosystem more robust. Only the federal government can do the heavy lifting that will make that possible -- for the common good.