Levees Not War
Rebuilding New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Isaac and Tampa’s Blizzard of Lies

09/3/12

What Would Romney-Ryan Mean for FEMA and Infrastructure?

[ cross-posted at DailyKos ]

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“One of the themes of the Tampa convention will be the failure of government, and the prosperity that will result if it is cut to ribbons. But in a different corner of the television screen, the winds of Isaac are a reminder of the necessity of government—its labor, its expertise, its money—in the nation’s most dire moments. It is hard to forget what happened to New Orleans when that Republican philosophy was followed in 2005, and it will be harder still to explain how it might be allowed to happen again.” —“The Storm, Again,” NYT editorial, Aug. 27, 2012

“We have responsibilities, one to another—we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.” —vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan, acceptance speech, Republican National Convention, Tampa, Aug. 29, 2012

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If Hurricane Katrina was indeed divine retribution for abortions and tolerance of homosexuality, then how are we to understand God’s twice visiting strong hurricanes upon the U.S. at the exact moment when the Republican National Convention gathers to nominate its presidential candidate, with Gustav in 2008 and now with Isaac, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast on August 29, the exact 7-year anniversary of Katrina? (Rush Limbaugh has a suspicion.)

Far be it from us to question the wisdom of the true believers, but it’s our view that if hurricanes must come at all, it’s best they blow when the elephants are gathering at the water hole—preferably in Florida, or some other red coastal state. Let the screen be split. Let the images be juxtaposed. Let the nation never forget how the Republican way of governing—staffing disaster relief agencies with inexperienced cronies and then cutting funds—resulted in the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina: immeasurable death, destruction, anguish, financial ruin and impoverishment, dispersal, heartbreak . . . (To be sure, however, blame rests with both parties for the chronic underfunding of the Army Corps of Engineers that left the city’s levees and outflow canals’ floodwalls compromised.)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), established by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 at the persistent urging of state governors, only functions well when Democrats are in the White House. Democrats take governing and disaster management seriously, and Republicans do not. Bill Clinton’s FEMA director James Lee Witt (1993–2001) and the present director, W. Craig Fugate, are widely respected as disaster response professionals. In Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security (2006), Chris Cooper and Bobby Block survey the sad story of Republican disregard for disaster relief. FEMA’s tardy and disorganized response to Hurricane Andrew (shown above) in August 1992 likely cost President George H. W. Bush many votes in Florida, and beyond. Bill Clinton wrote in My Life (2004):

Traditionally, the job of FEMA director was given to a political supporter of the President who wanted some plum position but who had no experience with emergencies. I made a mental note to avoid that mistake if I won. Voters don’t chose a President based on how he’ll handle disasters, but if they’re faced with one themselves, it quickly becomes the most important issue in their lives.

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More Tax Cuts for the Rich, While Disaster Relief Is Held Hostage?

Five, six days after the storm, the lights are just coming back on in Mid-City and other parts of New Orleans. It’s 93 degrees, and thousands are still in the dark, without air conditioning.

While Hurricane Isaac was not as destructive as we feared—the reinforced floodwall system around greater New Orleans held up well—this storm’s timing was a reminder that there is one political party that is not to be trusted with disaster management, or with anything else relating to the social safety net. Mitt Romney’s economic plan would reduce non-discretionary spending by 30 percent.

Others have examined the falsehoods in Paul Ryan’s v.p. nomination acceptance speech and the overall dishonesty of the RNC show in Tampa (see here and here). Many have objected to the Republicans’ hypocrisy in blaming a president for failures ensured by their own blocking of every effort at repairing the economy. They filibustered or voted No on all potential remedies to make the public reject Obama. Many independents as well as Democrats and moderate Republicans are put off by the Mad Tea Party–style conservatives’ insistence that nothing good can come of government.

Many of the lies and evasions that concern us most, however, stem from the GOP’s hostility to spending taxpayers’ dollars on programs of direct help to the public, from Medicare and Social Security to FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service.

Paul Ryan sounds reassuring when he says, “The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves,” but the budgets he has put forth as chair of the House Budget Committee tell another story: You’re on your own.

Tim Murphy of Mother Jones in “What Would Romney-Ryan Mean for FEMA?” surveys the implications for disaster relief in the Ryan budgets—the same ones that would convert Medicare to a privatized “Vouchercare.” Murphy notes that the Ryan budget does not detail specific cuts (just as Mitt Romney avoids specifics), but “the overall math suggests that [the cuts] would be drastic.” In 2011 there were 14 disasters costing over $1 billion in damages, a record high, and with the intensifying climate change that the Republicans refuse to acknowledge, the disasters’ frequency and destructiveness are only going to get worse.

Murphy writes:

“. . . under a Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan administration, FEMA’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to natural disasters could be severely inhibited. In a 2012 report on Rep. Paul Ryan’s ‘Path to Prosperity’ roadmap (which Romney has said is similar to his own), the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that, due to the severe cuts to non-entitlement, non-defense spending, the costs for things like emergency management would have to be passed on to the states—which, with just a few exceptions, are currently in an even tighter financial bind than Washington.

“FEMA also helps states and local governments repair or replace public facilities and infrastructure, which often is not insured,” the CBPP report explained. ‘This form of discretionary federal aid would be subject to cuts under the Ryan budget. If it were scaled back substantially, states and localities would need to bear a larger share of the costs of disaster response and recovery, or attempt to make do with less during difficult times.’ ”

Pat Garofalo at ThinkProgress describes how Republicans held disaster relief funding hostage several times in 2011, demanding that funding be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. “The GOP pulled the same trick when Missouri was hit by a deadly tornado in May, when Virginia was affected by an earthquake, and when Hurricane Irene struck America’s east coast.” Garofalo quotes David Weigel at Slate:

According to the House Appropriation Committee’s summary of the bill, the [GOP’s 2011 continuing resolution] funds Operations, Research and Facilities for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association with $454.3 million less than it got in FY2010; this represents a $450.3 million cut from what the president’s never-passed FY2011 budget was requesting. The National Weather Service, of course, is part of NOAA—its funding drops by $126 million. The CR also reduces funding for FEMA management by $24.3 million off of the FY2010 budget, and reduces that appropriation by $783.3 million for FEMA state and local programs.

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We won’t pretend to interpret divine intentions in the timing of the recent hurricanes and other disasters, but we can be thankful for the opportunity to point out to the concerned public that there is one slate of candidates who will not be there for you when a tornado rips through your town, or an earthquake splits your streets. We won’t say (though others may) that natural disasters are God’s way of saying “Vote Democratic,” but don’t you want to be on the safe side?

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Photo credits: Hurricane Andrew (1992) by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); downed stop light in New Orleans (2012) by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

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