Politicizing Hurricane Sandy: Left vs. Right
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Politicizing Hurricane Sandy: Left vs. Right

Washington : DC : USA | Oct 31, 2012 at 2:29 AM PDT
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Romney on FEMA

With less than a week to go to the general election, Hurricane Sandy has caused both candidates to temporarily halt their campaigns and focus on the devastation caused by the storm. Despite this temporary halt, surrogates and pundits have not stopped from a shameless attempt to politicize the disaster.

Those on the left were quick to point to a Republican primary debate where Mitt Romney stated that FEMA should be elminated and the responsibility shifted to the states and that it would be even better if it was privatized.

Those on the right are attempting to pin sequestration on the president, which would cut $878 million in funding to FEMA if legislators were not to avoid the fiscal cliff.

Preliminary estimates peg the cost of Superstorm Sandy at $20 billion and some run as high as $60 billion. FEMA says it has enough funds to cover the initial costs of the hurricane, and has $3.6 billion to pay for the federal response to Sandy. At this time it is too early to tell if additional funding will be required once the total cost has been established.

What did Mitt Romney say about FEMA?

A day after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the Jersey shore and devastated the northeast, the debate is raging over whether Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggested last year the elimination of FEMA.

The Romney campaign maintains that Romney did nothing of the kind, while the New York Times and some pundits on allvoices insist that he did.

“Does Mr. Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency?” the New York Times editorial asked. “Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages.”

Romney's comments come from a Republican party primary debate on June 13, 2011.

The debate was moderated by CNN's John King who, during a discussion of what functions the federal government keeps, posed the question of disaster relief to Mitt Romney. The debate was on the heels of the Joplin tornado a month earlier. Debate Transcript

John King: “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?”

Mitt 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,” Romney continued. “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 ...”

John King: “Including disaster relief, though?"

Mitt 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.”

When contacted by the media, the Romney campaign asserted that Mitt Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management, since they are in the best position to respond.

“Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions. As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

The issue of sequestration

Not to be shortchanged, Republicans have been quick to point out that sequestration would cut more than $800 million from FEMA. While the sequester may have been pushed by the White House in order to get a deal on raising the debt ceiling, the House Republicans voted to approve the sequester and the president signed it into law. Hello fiscal cliff.

How is disaster relief handled in Canada?

Under the Canadian system, disaster relief comes under the Minister of Public safety, an elected official. The minister is allocated disaster relief funding, which can then be directed to provinces for their responses to disasters. In addition the minister would be responsive to the needs of provinces, by co-ordinating reqests for Canadian Forces or police forces. Those would be part of official requests by provinces.

Provinces and Territories have "Emergency Measures Organizations (EMO)," which co-ordinate first responders and any assistance requests to the federal government.

In the US, FEMA is another agency, under Homeland Security, which responds to requests by states. One can debate if a complete agency is needed to handle this response or could if the coordination could be done by the states, provided additonal funding is provided by the federal government.

Not unlike Canada, the first responders in the US are the states. As an example, in order to restore powers to the millions left without it, states have asked for assistance from outside their boundaries and even power companies in Ontario have responded. Essentially one could argue that much of that coordination is already done by the states.

Politicizing Hurricane Sandy

With millions of people suffering, politicizing this issue by either side is unwarranted. Both Obama and Romney have stayed above the fray and concentrated on the victims of this unprecedented disaster.

Two minute answers in a debate never tell the whole story, but make fodder for pundits and some in the media. The same is true for the sequestration of funds from FEMA.

With the unprecedented damage "Frankenstorm" caused to the northeastern United States, it is shameless, IMHO, and wrong to politicize this issue. Now is the time for the president to do the work a president does in times of emergencies and according to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the president has been responsive and his engagement is commendable.

Now is the time to look after the victims, there is plenty of time for politics once the storm has passed.

If you like writing about US politics and Campaign 2012, enter "The American Pundit" competition. Allvoices is awarding four $250 prizes each month between now and November. These monthly winners earn eligibility for the $5,000 grand prize, to be awarded after the November election.


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Karl Gotthardt is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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