Does the Response to Hurricane Irene Prove Big Government Works?

The apparent success of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at combating the negative effects of Hurricane Irene proves that a large federal government can work, according to The Washington Post's Dana Milbank. The Heritage Foundation's Matt Mayer, however, views FEMA's response as another example of wasteful government spending.

“Don’t expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right,” Milbank writes.

Milbank cites the success of NOAA at tracking the path of the storm. He also noted that FEMA helped with “food, water, generators and tarps” along the storm's path. Also, in North Carolina, FEMA provided a power generator to local authorities, and in Vermont, provided a FEMA facility to the state emergency operations center after their own facility was without power.

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Milbank warns that Republicans' proposed budget cuts will harm the future effectiveness of NOAA and FEMA: “But under the House Republicans’ plan to freeze discretionary spending at 2008 levels over a decade, FEMA cuts are inevitable.” Milbank also cites a report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, saying the Republican's proposed cuts would amount “to a 31 percent cut in real per capita spending on discretionary functions such as FEMA.”

“Tea Party members who denounce big government seem to have an abstract notion that government spending means welfare programs and bloated bureaucracies. Almost certainly they aren’t thinking about hurricane tracking and pre-positioning of FEMA supplies. But if they succeed in paring the government, some of these Tea Party folks (particularly those on the coasts or on the tornado alley’s) may be surprised to discover that they have turned a Hurricane Irene government back into a Katrina government,” Milbank wrote.

Matt Mayer is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, who specializes in national security issues and formerly worked at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where FEMA is housed. In an interview with The Christian Post, he said that the issue with FEMA is not how much money it receives in the federal budget, but how the money is being spent.

“The reality is, we've got to get FEMA out of the business of routine disasters that it's been involved in over the last 20 years, and if we do that, FEMA will have plenty of funds and resources to deal with catastrophic events like hurricanes and major earthquakes,” Mayer said.

State and local governments are capable of dealing with minor disasters, according to Mayer, but FEMA has an important role to play when disasters are so catastrophic that they overwhelm the resources of state and local governments.

“The true intent of FEMA was to be a catastrophic agency,” Mayer said, “whether it's Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Katrina, the Northridge earthquake in California, or 9/11, that's what FEMA should be getting involved with. That's where you need that federal role, because, it's so big it really does overwhelm state and local governments.”

There are very few disasters that meet this requirement, though, according to Mayer. Instead, he said, states use FEMA money as a way to shift the cost of minor disasters to the federal government or the other states.

“Four hurricanes hit Florida in September of [2004] that were pretty insignificant hurricanes and FEMA handled it perfectly fine,” he pointed out. “That didn't mean that big government and FEMA were able to handle Hurricane Katrina, which truly was catastrophic.

“You can spend tens of millions of dollars to deal with a fairly routine category one hurricane and say that makes the case for big government. It does not. It makes the case for state and locals handling it on their own and saving big government for truly catastrophic stuff and see if it does well then.”

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