What does Superstorm Sandy tell us about how to vote? Is disaster aid “immoral?”

October 29, 2012

Is it immoral for the federal government to coordinate disaster responses, and to provide aid for disasters, especially during and after superstorms like Sandy?

SUOMI view of Hurricane Sandy, early October 29, 2012 - NASA image

Caption from NASA: This night-view image of Hurricane Sandy was acquired by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite around 2:42 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (06:42 Universal Time) on October 28, 2012. In this case, the cloud tops were lit by the nearly full Moon (full occurs on October 29). Some city lights in Florida and Georgia are also visible amid the clouds.
CREDIT: NASA/Suomi NPP – VIIRS/Michael Carlowicz

I was troubled when GOP Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called for cuts to disaster forecasting and especially our volcano monitoring systems, in 2009. I’ve been troubled by slams at NASA and NOAA with calls to cut budgets for orbiting satellites used to forecast storms and floods and other disasters, from the GOP.

And, with Sandy bearing down on the U.S. Northeast, Middle Atlantic and New England states (where older son Kenny lives in building that is, we hope, about 20 feet above sea level), I’ve been troubled by memories of calls for cuts to FEMA in the Republican presidential primaries.

Correspondent James Kessler tracked down a transcript from a campaign event in June, a presidential candidate cavalcade broadcast by CNN, with John King as moderator/anchor.  Look at this exchange:

KING: What else, Governor Romney? You’ve been a chief executive of a state. I was just in Joplin, Missouri. I’ve been in Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee and other communities dealing with whether it’s the tornadoes, the flooding, and worse. FEMA is about to run out of money, and there are some people who say do it on a case-by-case basis and some people who say, you know, maybe we’re learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role. How do you deal with something like that?

ROMNEY: Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.

Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut — we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep? We should take all of what we’re doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do? And those things we’ve got to stop doing, because we’re borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we’re taking in. We cannot…

KING: Including disaster relief, though?

ROMNEY: We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.

Can you imagine how different the world would be today had Americans shared that view in 1936, or 1940, or 1942?  Immoral to do what is necessary to preserve the future, because we have to borrow to do some of it?

Has Romney changed his position in the last 24 hours?  I predict he will change it very soon, if he hasn’t already flip-flopped on it.  Of course, he may double down on crazy, and stand pat.   What do you think a rational patriot would do in this case?  [At about 1:00 p.m. Central Time, I heard an NPR radio news report — Romney urges private contributions to the Red Cross.  Meanwhile, President Obama has been working all morning to make sure the disaster response from the federal government is coordinated with affected states.] [Ha! But within hours, Romney has taken the almost-opposite position again.  World land speed record for flips on an issue?]

I erred, perhaps.  I had thought Mitt Romney the most capable and sober of the GOP candidates for president, and I urged by GOP friends to support Romney if they had no chance of completely recovering their senses by November.  Now I realize that, on the GOP side, “most capable” should be “most nearly capable,” and still means “incapable.”  And “sober” means nothing at all.  Perhaps worse, he’s still the best of the GOP lot this year.  Even worse, he has a chance to win.

Can we blame Romney?  Yes, we can blame people who reject science and don’t think of consequences past election day.  Yesterday Greg Laden offered a long post on what we should have learned from the “Storm of 1938” and the remnants of Hurricane Irene that slammed the Northeast in 2011, “What you need to know about Frankenstorm Hurricane Sandy”:

Here’s the thing. Imagine that a storm like Sandy came along in either of two years; 70 years ago or 35 years ago. Sandy is much larger and contains much more energy than the ’38 storm, or for that matter, of any known storm of the North Atlantic (we’ll get to that below). If Sandy hit the region in the 1930s, it would have been without warning, and it would have been prior to the reconstruction of seawalls and the development of flood mitigation measures inland that have happened in recent decades. Sandy, in ’38, would kill tens of thousands and destroy thousands of structures. That would be an average Sandy, a Sandy not being as bad as the most dire predictions we are considering today as the storm begins to take a grip on the eastern seaboard.

A Sandy of 35 years ago would have been predicted. The ability to see hurricanes coming was in place, but not as well developed as it is today. We would have seen Sandy coming, but her massiveness and extent, and her exact trajectory, would probably have been unknown. But at least there would be warning. Many of the seawalls and flood mitigation systems would have been in place, but the overbuilding on barrier islands and other vulnerable coastal regions would have been at or near a peak. With evacuations, Sandy would not kill 10s of thousands… probably only hundreds. But the number of buildings destroyed would be unthinkable. Most of those buildings are now gone or shored up. A Sandy in 1975 would have left some very interesting coastal archaeology for me to have observed during my trips to the shore in the 1980s. Very interesting indeed.

Mr. Laden always offers a good view of science, and his history is good here, too.

We can learn from the past.  FEMA is charged with learning from past disasters.  It’s a function of federal government we would be foolish to forego.  “Austere” shouldn’t mean “stupid.”

What do you think?  Is it immoral for the federal government to provide disaster assistance?

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