"When Hurricane Sandy happened in our sophomore year, did you ever think it would become your job?"
A friend asked me that when I started my latest job which is, as you may have guessed, tying up the loose ends of Hurricane Sandy recovery. I've now worked in two different jobs doing some aspect of storm recovery, and almost across the board, it's incredibly complicated. So with the recent flooding in Louisiana, I thought this would be a good time to talk about disaster recovery, and what happens when it becomes political.
When you talk about flooding and disasters, FEMA is the first thing that springs to mind, and with good reason. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is often the first on the ground when a disaster hits, and that disaster can be anything from a hurricane, to flooding, to tornado, to a terrorist attack, to an Ebola scare, all natural disasters FEMA has been involved in in the last fifteen years.
FEMA is on the ground no matter what the disaster is, but not all events lead to a disaster declaration. A federal disaster declaration is only given when the state or tribal government feels their resources are overwhelmed. The first step in a disaster declaration is a Governor of a state saying "hey, I cannot handle this" which doesn't always happen. For example, if a town had lead in the water, but enough money to do the necessary lead abatement, the would not ask FEMA for a disaster declaration.
Once a Governor submits a disaster declaration, and FEMA conducts an on-the-ground survey of the damage, the President can issue an emergency declaration, or a major disaster declaration, with major disaster declarations providing more access to money and services. In this particular case, President Obama signed a major disaster declaration on August 14th.
Disaster recovery is almost shockingly expensive. 120 billion dollars in federal aid was spent following Katrina. 50 billion federal dollars have been spent following Sandy. And that is just federal money. When able, state governments can chip in their own funds, but disaster assistance is primarily handled by the federal government.
One Louisiana Congressman who's district was affected by the flooding, Representative Garret Graves (R-LA), has already spoken with Congressional Republicans to try to pass a separate funding bill, even though the current head of FEMA says they have enough disaster funds to cover the short-term recovery. That doesn't matter to Graves, he is already pushing for a separate recovery package, sparing no expense for his constituents. That's his job, he needs to advocate for his constituents.
Although, you know who may not have supported this extra disaster funding? Representative Garret Graves from two months ago. Representative Graves believes that "it is critical for Congress to lead the way toward a balanced budget, and I am committed to supporting policies that control federal spending and restore budget integrity." Any town coming to two-months ago Graves for disaster funding may have hit a brick wall.
But that's just one example. Surely Congressman Graves has compassion for other citizens of this country facing crises that their state cannot handle alone! Let's hear what he has to say on the bailout in Puerto Rico: "Diverting Louisiana tax dollars to bailout Puerto Rico’s financial mismanagement is unfair to our state and would not solve the long-term problems in Puerto Rico."
But he did all he could to protect the citizens of his district prior to this flooding. Probably. There was a stalled Army Corps of Engineers project that could have prevented some of the flooding, but it's unclear if the project was held up because of the Army Corps of Engineers dragging their feet, or Congressman Graves not securing enough federal funding. At this point, it's Representative Graves' word against the Army Corps.
I'm unfairly picking on Representative Graves, I know. He isn't the first Republican to deny funding to one community facing a disaster, only to turn around and ask for funding when their own community was suffering. We can look no further than Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who asked for relief funds for Texas flooding, after voting against a Hurricane Sandy aid package. We can also look at Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Tim Scott (R-SC), who voted against Sandy aid, and just two years later, asked for federal relief for South Carolina, following major flooding in their state.
To clarify, I am not at all opposed to elected officials asking for funding for their state following disasters! In fact, I think the job of the government is to help communities recover after disasters. What angers me is politicians who vote against any and all federal spending, until they need help. Politicians who are unwilling to loosen the purse strings for anything except in their own backyard. It's hypocritical and it shows a severe lack of empathy.
It all ties in to one of my overarching theories that everyone is a progressive when an issue matters to them. When a natural disaster hits their community, even the most small government conservative will fight for increased federal funding. People hate government spending, until they collect their social security. When your kid is a teacher, suddenly you support unions. People who know a gay person are more likely to support gay rights.
Unfortunately for our nation as a whole, some people cannot , and federal disaster funding is just one proof of that. It is my sincerest hope that the next time a community or group comes to Congress with a request, certain Representatives will take a step back and think "how would I want Congress to react if this were my community?" Or, to quote the Bible (which is not a phrase I say often) do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Maybe this will make our country a little more compassionate and a better place to live for everyone.