Disaster Relief: Does the Government Do Too Much?

The role of the government in disaster relief is the topic of much discussion as Hurricane Irene, now Tropical Storm Irene, pummels New England.

Inevitable comparisons are being drawn to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005. The response from government during and after that catastrophe was widely seen as inadequate, ineffective and incompetent. President George W. Bush, especially, was widely criticized at the time for not getting more personally involved in leading the response effort.

“If you look at the polling from 2005, President Bush's approval rating dropped 4 or 5 points after Katrina, and he never recovered those 4 or 5 points,” noted Ron Brownstein of the National Journal on ABC's “This Week.”

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The lessons learned from Bush's failures after Katrina were a “turning point,” according to Brownstein; and now, every mayor, governor and president has “to be seen as being in control.” It is also true, however, that “it's part of [government executive's] job,” Brownstein said.

President Obama seems to have learned those lessons. He has been personally involved by staying in touch with those involved in the government's disaster response efforts.

“A huge part of [President George W. Bush's] appeal post-September 11, was that he was keeping the country safe, and suddenly people didn't feel safe. They weren't safe, they were in a very dangerous situation,” Cokie Roberts said on “This Week.” “President Obama is now in a position where people are questioning his leadership. We are seeing that in the polls. And he has been all over this hurricane and I think that is very smart of him to do. Whether that redounds to his advantage or not, we just don't know.”

Is Obama really making a difference, however, or are the images of him at FEMA headquarters simply for show? Does the president really matter? Some argue that the president needs to reassure the public that someone is in charge. Others think it demonstrates a belief that the president is more central to American life than he really is.

“This president is captive of a superstition he didn't invent, but that he has perhaps made even worse, and that is the cult of the modern presidency, the belief that the president is central, that it is all powerful,” conservative columnist George Will said on “This Week.” “This is after all, the man who, on June 2008 the night he clinched the Democratic primaries said people will note this as the moment when 'the rise of the oceans begin to slow.' Well, goodness gracious, if the man can control the oceans, this [hurricane] should be a piece of cake.”

The debate about the role of the president and federal government comes at a time when budget cuts are forcing greater scrutiny of the funding of disaster relief efforts.

In the past, increased funding for disaster relief usually came from increased borrowing. Now, however, Congress and the president have begun a set of austerity measures. In the current political climate, increased funding for disaster relief will be unlikely without offsetting it with spending cuts from somewhere else.

Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said, regarding relief money for the earthquake that struck his district in Virginia, that disaster response “monies will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere in order to meet the priority of the federal government’s role in a situation like this.”

Ron Paul, a presidential candidate and Texas congressman, was critical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on “Fox News Sunday,” saying it has “one of the worst reputations for a bureaucracy ever,” and is “deeply flawed.” Paul also implied that it is not the government's job to "take care of us" in disaster situations.

Craig Fugate, director of FEMA, said on “This Week” that FEMA has learned from the mistakes made during Hurricane Katrina. The biggest lesson, Fugate said, is “that we shouldn't have to wait until the state is overwhelmed to begin getting ready, that we should be able to go in before the governors made a request, have supplies ready, have our teams in the state and work as one team, not waiting for damages to occur and that formal request to come.”

Fugate also said on “Fox News Sunday” that his agency has about $800 million in the relief fund and he will not know if FEMA will ask Congress for more money until his agency assesses the damage from Hurricane Irene.

The Washington Post reported on Sunday, however, that FEMA is already shifting funds from other disaster responses in order to pay for the Hurricane Irene efforts. In particular, FEMA has stopped making payments for damage caused by tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. The decision is not unusual. FEMA is required to prioritize immediate and urgent needs.

Paul said that FEMA is about $20 million in debt. This may be an understatement. A senior congressional aide told Fox News congressional reporter Chad Pergram that the agency has a $2-4.8 billion shortfall, even before Hurricane Irene.

The next question for Congress, therefore, will be to what extent should the federal government be involved in disaster relief, and how will it be paid for.

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