Sandy vs. Katrina
Paul Krugman has a good column today on the topic—and by a coincidence, The Wife and I are watching Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. I highly recommend that series, and it is impossible to view the response of the Bush Administration as anything other than disgraceful, incompetent, and uncaring. The Convention Center was a disaster, and when Michael Browne said recently that Obama’s response to Sandy was “too quick,” you can understand his own leisurely response to the disaster in New Orleans. The series is excellent, and it reminds us of why we fund a federal government.
As Sandy barreled toward New Jersey, there were hopeful mutters on the right to the effect that it might become President Obama’s Katrina, with voters blaming him for the damage, and that this might matter on Tuesday. Sorry, guys: polls show overwhelming approval for Mr. Obama’s handling of the storm, and a significant rise in his overall favorability ratings.
And he deserves the bump. For the response to Sandy, like the success of the auto bailout, is a demonstration that Mr. Obama’s philosophy of government — which holds that the government can and should provide crucial aid in times of crisis — works. And conversely, the contrast between Sandy and Katrina demonstrates that leaders who hold government in contempt cannot provide that aid when it is needed.
So, about that response: Much of the greater New York area (including my house) is still without power; gasoline is scarce; and some outlying areas are feeling neglected. Right-wing news media are portraying these continuing difficulties as a disaster comparable to, nay greater than, the aftermath of Katrina. But there’s really no comparison.
I could do a point-by-point — and it’s definitely worth it, if you’re curious, to revisit the 2005 Katrina timeline to get a sense of just how bad the response really was. But for me the difference is summed up in two images. One is the nightmare at the New Orleans convention center, where thousands were stranded for days amid inconceivable squalor, an outrage that all of America watched live on TV, but to which top officials seemed oblivious. The other is the scene in flooded Hoboken, with the National Guard moving in the day after the storm struck to deliver food and water and rescue stranded residents.
The point is that after Katrina the government seemed to have no idea what it was doing; this time it did. And that’s no accident: the federal government’s ability to respond effectively to disaster always collapses when antigovernment Republicans hold the White House, and always recovers when Democrats take it back.
Consider, in particular, the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Under President George H. W. Bush, FEMA became a dumping ground for unqualified political hacks. Faced with a major test in the form of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the agency failed completely.
Then Bill Clinton came in, put FEMA under professional management, and saw the agency’s reputation restored.
Given this experience, you might have expected George W. Bush to preserve Mr. Clinton’s gains. But no: he appointed his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, to head the agency, and Mr. Allbaugh immediately signaled his intention both to devolve disaster relief to the state and local level and to downgrade the whole effort, declaring, “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” After Mr. Allbaugh left for the private sector, he was replaced with Michael “heckuva job” Brown, and the rest is history.
Like Mr. Clinton, President Obama restored FEMA’s professionalism, effectiveness, and reputation. [For one thing, Obama put in charge of FEMA a man with actual experience in disaster-response management instead (say) a political hack. – LG] But would Mitt Romney destroy the agency again? Yes, he would. As everyone now knows — despite the Romney campaign’s efforts to Etch A Sketch the issue away — during the primary Mr. Romney used language almost identical to Mr. Allbaugh’s, declaring that disaster relief should be turned back to the states and to the private sector.
The best line on this, I have to admit, comes from Stephen Colbert: . . .