Feature

FEMA: Big government in action

When the super-storm smashed into the Eastern Seaboard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency rushed into action.

Hurricane Sandy has given Americans a powerful lesson in the benefits of big government, said Drake Bennett in Bloomberg Businessweek. When the super-storm smashed into the Eastern Seaboard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency rushed into action. Within 76 hours, it had deployed over 2,270 disaster-relief personnel to several states, carried out 700 rescues, provided shelter to almost 11,000 people, and delivered more than 660,000 gallons of water and 1.5 million meals. Republicans, however, would prefer to stop FEMA from carrying out this lifesaving work, said Paul Krugman in The New York Times. House Republicans have proposed slashing the agency’s funding by up to 40 percent, and have repeatedly insisted that “disaster relief should be turned back to the states and the private sector.” That same philosophy led to FEMA’s infamously inept—and deadly—response to Hurricane Katrina during the Bush years. When disaster strikes, we need competent government. 

Even in responding to disasters, “bigger government isn’t always better,” said Michael Tanner in The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that FEMA is plagued with “the same bureaucratic waste and inefficiency that beset other government programs.” After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA spent $878 million on prefabricated homes, then left thousands of them to rot in storage lots because its own regulations barred them from being used on Louisiana’s floodplains. FEMA’s management may be better today, but a 2010 audit detailed 40 pages of waste, fraud, and cost overruns. “The presence of a hurricane is no argument against reforming incontinent federal spending,” said Kevin Williamson in NationalReview.com. A far bigger storm is looming on the horizon—“a Category 5 fiscal hurricane” threatening to drown our already debt-soaked nation. 

Ultimately, disaster relief saves the government money,  said Matthew Yglesias in Slate.com. Storm-ravaged states can only get back in business if they quickly repair roads and power lines. “But that requires financing by an entity capable of rapidly financing expensive projects—i.e., the federal government.” Without help from the feds, it might take years for New Jersey and New York to rebuild what they’ve lost—resulting in lost businesses and jobs, falling tax receipts, and a drag on the national economy. Cutting federal disaster aid to reduce deficits “is the height of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking.”

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