Commentary Magazine


Topic: FEMA

Why Isn’t Sandy Obama’s Katrina?

The pictures from New Orleans after Katrina were iconic. Stories breathlessly filed from the Superdome warned of rampant crimes, inadequate access to basic sanitation, even babies getting raped (which was later proven to be a rumor). CNN’s Anderson Cooper berated Senator Mary Landrieu on air about the government’s response to the storm. Spike Lee made an entire documentary about the impact the hurricane had on the city and its residents. Famously, during a telethon for Katrina’s victims, rapper Kanye West told viewers, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

The week before the election, Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, bringing unprecedented destruction to the seaside communities in the tri-state area. Parts of New York City went dark, as sections of the city were completely submerged in flood waters for the first time in modern history. Seaside towns across the Jersey Shore lost their famous boardwalks in an instant, and in Seaside Heights, parts of a roller coaster ended up sucked into the ocean. 

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The pictures from New Orleans after Katrina were iconic. Stories breathlessly filed from the Superdome warned of rampant crimes, inadequate access to basic sanitation, even babies getting raped (which was later proven to be a rumor). CNN’s Anderson Cooper berated Senator Mary Landrieu on air about the government’s response to the storm. Spike Lee made an entire documentary about the impact the hurricane had on the city and its residents. Famously, during a telethon for Katrina’s victims, rapper Kanye West told viewers, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

The week before the election, Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, bringing unprecedented destruction to the seaside communities in the tri-state area. Parts of New York City went dark, as sections of the city were completely submerged in flood waters for the first time in modern history. Seaside towns across the Jersey Shore lost their famous boardwalks in an instant, and in Seaside Heights, parts of a roller coaster ended up sucked into the ocean. 

After several days of dominating the news cycle, the nation moved on to the election, and now, to the unfolding scandal involving CIA Director David Petraeus. For those left in the worst of Sandy’s wake, no matter what CNN may be covering, few have had the ability to move on. The local New York City-centric blog Gothamist describes the situation in The Rockaways area of Queens:

“The city hasn’t reached out to us at all,” said Matt Calender, a Rockaway resident who helps direct a bustling relief effort from a house on Beach 96th Street. “The Red Cross gave us 500 blankets the other day. FEMA talked to us. But that’s it. We station volunteers here, but we also send people downtown, where there is immense need. If people come here we can actually give them something to do.”

After Katrina, President George W. Bush was lambasted for FEMA’s response to the storm. Those aware of the situation in Far Rockaway and other hard-hit areas of New York know that the situation isn’t much different than New Orleans post-Katrina. New York City Councilman James Sanders, who represents the Rockaways, gave a chilling interview to a Boston NPR affiliate, stating:

“FEMA did not arrive in a timely fashion, nor did the Red Cross,” Richards said. “If it wasn’t for everyday citizens coming out and giving us a hand, the Rockaways would be in a shape that is unfathomable.”

Richards said that FEMA didn’t arrive until last Thursday, and he says the agency initially set up in an area that was inaccessible to poorer residents.

“Every 24 hours that goes by, we get into a more desperate situation so FEMA has to respond quicker. I know we have a billion things to do but in a low-income area with 30 percent of the people on some sort of income subsidy we need them to move fast and move now,” Richards said.

FEMA was unavailable for comment.

Electricity is starting to return to the Rockaways, but many homes still lack heat and hot water. Gasoline is still in short supply.

“We’re running into a desperate situation, especially as winter starts to greet us,” Richards said. “[Our residents] are still sleeping in the cold – many of our children, our elderly! And not only is it cold, but they’re sleeping in wet apartments.”

Richards says the situation in public housing has also been dire. He said a 77-year-old man died on Saturday, because he fell down an unlit staircase. He is also concerned that many crimes may have gone unreported, because communication has been spotty with the New York City Housing Authority.

“No one will know how many rapes have happened in the Rockaways, how many burglaries, how many murders. No one will have accurate information on these things until months pass by after this post-Sandy era disappears,” Richards said.

Rabbi Shay Schachter, assistant rabbi at the Rockaways’ “White Shul” told me about the dire straits his community was in in the first nine days after the storm struck. FEMA only arrived the following Tuesday after the storm and initially had to rely on local relief groups like the Long Island JCC for information. Rabbi Schachter had been running groups of local students and volunteers into three 17-story buildings in his community, filled largely with poor and elderly residents. He told me that when they first arrived five days after the storm bringing food and water to residents “[they] looked at us like they haven’t seen food in five years.” Schachter was asked by many residents about how they could receive medical attention, medication and access to dialysis machines while trapped in their highrise apartments without working elevators. Before FEMA took over the building’s care a full ten days after the storm hit, one FEMA official told Schachter that he was certain they would find dead bodies inside, as elderly residents inside had no heat, food, or medical care. 

After the storm, before the election, the only public discussion regarding FEMA centered around Mitt Romney’s statements during a GOP primary debate, which were misinterpreted and misrepresented to suggest he wanted to abolish FEMA. Romney came under fire for the remarks and unfortunately, as Jonathan pointed out the day before the election, little political attention has been paid to FEMA’s undeniably slow response to Sandy. The logic of Romney’s suggestion that FEMA cannot (and has not in the past) promptly offer relief to victims of natural and man-made disasters in the U.S. has yet to be discussed in the media or by government officials. More than two weeks after the storm, the situation is growing increasingly dire for residents of the Rockaways as temperatures plummet.

With the media’s silence and the public’s amnesia over the impact of the hurricane, President Obama has once again received a free pass on yet another issue of national importance. The media’s outcry over the devastation after Katrina led to a massive influx of aid in the form of governmental agency involvement, subsidies, and private charitable organizations’ assistance. Without that outcry, the victims of Sandy should be wondering what kind of attention they would be receiving if the president’s party began with an R, not a D. 

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Will the Sandy Bounce Wear Off in Time?

For a few crucial days, the prevailing image of Hurricane Sandy in the minds of Americans was that of President Obama being embraced by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The gratitude expressed by the Republican for federal storm relief seemed to not only symbolize a new wave of bipartisanship, but also burnished the president’s image as a competent commander-in-chief. Nearly a week later, that airbrushed picture of the storm has now been replaced by a less pleasant tableau: residents of New York and New Jersey waiting in the cold for help that hasn’t come, with others standing on long lines for scarce gas. As former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani pointed out yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency may have gotten some great press out of Sandy, but the brutal reality of the storm’s aftermath shows serious flaws in planning for the disaster. The shortages of drinkable water, working generators and gas has made life miserable for too many people.

There’s little doubt the first round of press coverage gave President Obama a tremendous lift last week just at the time when he needed it most. Almost all the national polls showed he gained a few points, knocking Mitt Romney out of the lead he had held since the first presidential debate. The question today as Americans vote is whether the lingering good feelings from that Christie embrace will have worn off by the time many voters step into the booth. The Sandy bounce turned out to be a genuine force in the election and probably the most potent “October surprise” in presidential politics since the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush’s drunk driving arrest as a young man on the eve of the 2000 election. But there may have been just enough time in between Christie’s embrace of Obama and Election Day for some of the sheen to fade from the picture.

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For a few crucial days, the prevailing image of Hurricane Sandy in the minds of Americans was that of President Obama being embraced by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The gratitude expressed by the Republican for federal storm relief seemed to not only symbolize a new wave of bipartisanship, but also burnished the president’s image as a competent commander-in-chief. Nearly a week later, that airbrushed picture of the storm has now been replaced by a less pleasant tableau: residents of New York and New Jersey waiting in the cold for help that hasn’t come, with others standing on long lines for scarce gas. As former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani pointed out yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency may have gotten some great press out of Sandy, but the brutal reality of the storm’s aftermath shows serious flaws in planning for the disaster. The shortages of drinkable water, working generators and gas has made life miserable for too many people.

There’s little doubt the first round of press coverage gave President Obama a tremendous lift last week just at the time when he needed it most. Almost all the national polls showed he gained a few points, knocking Mitt Romney out of the lead he had held since the first presidential debate. The question today as Americans vote is whether the lingering good feelings from that Christie embrace will have worn off by the time many voters step into the booth. The Sandy bounce turned out to be a genuine force in the election and probably the most potent “October surprise” in presidential politics since the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush’s drunk driving arrest as a young man on the eve of the 2000 election. But there may have been just enough time in between Christie’s embrace of Obama and Election Day for some of the sheen to fade from the picture.

It may be that many Americans will not choose to blame the president for the post-Sandy disaster. There are other and probably better candidates for scapegoat, most principally New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The 24/7 news cycle may have moved on from the storm and back to the election this week after liberal journalists had already made their comparisons between Obama’s supposedly masterful handling of Sandy and George W. Bush’s Katrina fiasco. But the pictures of gas lines and homeless storm sufferers may have turned Obama’s advantage into a liability by the time voting began today.

As for the impact of the storm on voting in New York and New Jersey, speculation that it will depress vote totals in these blue states are neither here nor there. It should be remembered that some of the areas most heavily affected, like the borough of Staten Island in New York City, are actually GOP strongholds. Though the provisions for allowing homeless residents of both states to vote elsewhere may create chaos, the odds are it won’t have much impact on who wins the election.

Other factors will do far more to decide the result today than the storm. Turnout in the swing states for both parties will be crucial, as Democrats must recreate the partisan advantage they had in 2008 if the polls predicting an Obama victory are to be vindicated. Though the storm may have helped the president, the far less successful aftermath could have already erased that edge. The question for Romney is whether it happened quickly enough to allow him to gain back the ground he lost last week.

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Does Obama’s FEMA Deserve Applause?

As I wrote earlier today, there is little doubt that part of the reason why President Obama got a bounce of some sort from Hurricane Sandy is the perception that his administration did a much better job dealing with the emergency than President Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. This was largely the result of a complacent media that was content to portray the president as the hero of the occasion after his fly through New Jersey and the seal of approval he got from Governor Chris Christie. But Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, someone who knows a thing or two about what happens in a crisis, isn’t buying it.

Giuliani is frustrated not so much by the political spin of this story as by the spectacle of the citizens of his beloved New York City being left in need while the rest of the country “moves on” from the hurricane. As far as Giuliani is concerned, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t deserve the laurels they have received from the media and for which the president is given credit. As Politico reports:

“The response since the time the president got all this praise and credit and press ops has been abysmal,” Giuliani said on Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “FEMA is as much a failure now as at the time of Katrina.”

Giuliani, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that he did not “understand” why New York was facing water, generators and gas shortages.

“It’s quite obvious they didn’t pre-plan for water, they didn’t pre-plan for the generators, they didn’t pre-plan for the gasoline,” he said.

He bashed Obama for losing “focus” on the subject.

“The president getting all this credit so early, maybe the first day or two he was paying attention, but the minute he got his credit, the minute he got his pat on his back, we had the same situation as we had in Benghazi,” Giuliani said. “He loses focus. He goes back to being campaigner-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.”

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As I wrote earlier today, there is little doubt that part of the reason why President Obama got a bounce of some sort from Hurricane Sandy is the perception that his administration did a much better job dealing with the emergency than President Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. This was largely the result of a complacent media that was content to portray the president as the hero of the occasion after his fly through New Jersey and the seal of approval he got from Governor Chris Christie. But Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, someone who knows a thing or two about what happens in a crisis, isn’t buying it.

Giuliani is frustrated not so much by the political spin of this story as by the spectacle of the citizens of his beloved New York City being left in need while the rest of the country “moves on” from the hurricane. As far as Giuliani is concerned, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t deserve the laurels they have received from the media and for which the president is given credit. As Politico reports:

“The response since the time the president got all this praise and credit and press ops has been abysmal,” Giuliani said on Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “FEMA is as much a failure now as at the time of Katrina.”

Giuliani, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that he did not “understand” why New York was facing water, generators and gas shortages.

“It’s quite obvious they didn’t pre-plan for water, they didn’t pre-plan for the generators, they didn’t pre-plan for the gasoline,” he said.

He bashed Obama for losing “focus” on the subject.

“The president getting all this credit so early, maybe the first day or two he was paying attention, but the minute he got his credit, the minute he got his pat on his back, we had the same situation as we had in Benghazi,” Giuliani said. “He loses focus. He goes back to being campaigner-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.”

The push back against the narrative of Obama’s brilliant emergency response may be coming too late to alter the public’s view of events. But if it is coming late it is because, unlike the Democrats in 2005 during Katrina, Republicans have been reluctant to inject politics into a natural disaster. But if the plight of the people of New Orleans was all the fault of George W. Bush — even though most of the problems there were more the result of the complete collapse of state and local authority and the abandonment of their posts by first responders, then it is not inappropriate to ask why Obama gets a pass as residents of New York and New Jersey cope with a crisis that is far from under control.

No president deserves to be blamed for bad weather. But the ability of Obama to avoid responsibility for what remains a terrible mess can be directly attributed to his cheerleaders in the news media.

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Does Romney Want to Abolish FEMA?

The left has been trying to whip up controversy over a comment Mitt Romney made at a GOP primary debate last year, when he answered a question about whether he’d abolish FEMA by saying he’d like to privatize a whole lot of government programs. Did Romney specifically say he’d privatize FEMA? No, but his answer did suggest it. And because there aren’t any other political controversies for the media to cover this week, it’s blown up into a major news story.

Here’s Romney’s actual comment from the GOP debate:

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The left has been trying to whip up controversy over a comment Mitt Romney made at a GOP primary debate last year, when he answered a question about whether he’d abolish FEMA by saying he’d like to privatize a whole lot of government programs. Did Romney specifically say he’d privatize FEMA? No, but his answer did suggest it. And because there aren’t any other political controversies for the media to cover this week, it’s blown up into a major news story.

Here’s Romney’s actual comment from the GOP debate:

As David Frum points out, Romney never actually called for the elimination of FEMA at the debate. He was evading the question. That’s not exactly commendable, but it also isn’t unusual for a politician:

Watch without prejudice, though, and you realize: that’s not what he said. Instead, he evaded a question from CNN‘s John KIng about FEMA by offering an answer that generically endorsed federalism without committing Romney on FEMA either one way or the other.

It’s a familiar politician’s trick. 

Still, that doesn’t answer the question of whether Romney wants to eliminate FEMA. If only there was some way to find out his actual position on this issue. Maybe this Politico article from yesterday can give us some clues:

The Romney campaign stressed Monday that states should take the lead in responding to emergencies like hurricanes. But the campaign said Romney would not abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

“Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said in a statement. “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.”

A campaign official added that Romney would not abolish FEMA.

Yes, but would he abolish FEMA or not? It’s all so ambiguous. What we need is more reporters out there demanding answers over and over again until we get to the bottom of this.

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Exploiting Hurricane Will Hurt Dems

Yesterday I wrote that the inevitable analogies that will be drawn by the liberal media between Hurricanes Isaac and Katrina are a gift to the Democrats. Just how much the public will make of these specious comparisons has yet to be determined, but one must give those members of President Obama’s cheerleading squad who write the editorials at the New York Times credit for trying. The paper’s lead editorial today was exactly along the lines that I predicted. It pompously claimed the storm “is a powerful reminder both of Republican incompetence in handling Hurricane Katrina seven years ago” and then piled on to the mythology behind that clause by also asserting that the storm also spotlights “the party’s no-less-disastrous plans to further cut emergency-related spending.”

Suffice it to say that seven years later attempts to blame the Katrina disaster solely on President Bush and his party is absurd, since we now know that most of the problems stemmed from the incompetence, if not the moral turpitude, displayed by local and state authorities. The argument that GOP demands that other savings offset more FEMA expenditures is somehow an invitation to catastrophe is just as dishonest. But as much as liberals are chortling at the Republicans’ bad luck with the weather, they need to be careful not to overplay their hand. While the GOP needs to be aware that a potential storm disaster is more important than their gathering, President Obama must be mindful that any actions of his own this week that can be interpreted as trying to make political hay out of a tragedy will backfire.

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Yesterday I wrote that the inevitable analogies that will be drawn by the liberal media between Hurricanes Isaac and Katrina are a gift to the Democrats. Just how much the public will make of these specious comparisons has yet to be determined, but one must give those members of President Obama’s cheerleading squad who write the editorials at the New York Times credit for trying. The paper’s lead editorial today was exactly along the lines that I predicted. It pompously claimed the storm “is a powerful reminder both of Republican incompetence in handling Hurricane Katrina seven years ago” and then piled on to the mythology behind that clause by also asserting that the storm also spotlights “the party’s no-less-disastrous plans to further cut emergency-related spending.”

Suffice it to say that seven years later attempts to blame the Katrina disaster solely on President Bush and his party is absurd, since we now know that most of the problems stemmed from the incompetence, if not the moral turpitude, displayed by local and state authorities. The argument that GOP demands that other savings offset more FEMA expenditures is somehow an invitation to catastrophe is just as dishonest. But as much as liberals are chortling at the Republicans’ bad luck with the weather, they need to be careful not to overplay their hand. While the GOP needs to be aware that a potential storm disaster is more important than their gathering, President Obama must be mindful that any actions of his own this week that can be interpreted as trying to make political hay out of a tragedy will backfire.

Though President Bush’s appointees did a terrible job in 2005, it is long past time for liberal organs to stop trying to paint the failure of the levees in New Orleans as a Republican problem or a racist plot. It is equally absurd for the Times to paint battles over the FEMA budget in apocalyptic terms. To paint every dollar expended by the agency as somehow the difference between life and death is mere melodrama, since we know that the federal office is just as capable of inefficiency as it is incompetence. Nor was it improper for Republicans who are mindful of the way President Obama has ballooned the federal deficit in a way that makes Bush’s profligacy look like prudence to ask that any overspending by FEMA (which they were prepared to approve) be paid for by cuts in less essential programs that are liberal sacred cows.

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that the bad timing of the storm and the attempts by liberals to wave the bloody shirt of Katrina won’t help Mitt Romney’s cause. It should also be specified that if federal authorities are seen to be doing their jobs in an appropriate manner during any relief operations in the Gulf it will be a boost for President Obama, who will be viewed as doing his job effectively.

However, the president needs to be careful about playing commander-in-chief in ways that are tangential or even a distraction from the real business of helping people. As President Bush noted in his memoirs, he waited to fly into New Orleans after the hurricane because he knew that a presidential visit with all of the attendant security and logistical complications that it would cause was the last thing the devastated area needed. The same standard would apply to any superfluous Obama fly-in to the storm areas this week. Once the crisis is over, a presidential visit is appropriate as a gesture of solidarity with those affected. But if President Obama seeks to use an unnecessary piece of stagecraft in the upcoming days merely to upstage the GOP convention or Mitt Romney’s acceptance of his nomination, it won’t do him or his party any good.

Americans are smart enough to know the difference between proper supervision of a crisis and political photo-ops. If the president opts for the latter, his fans at the Times and elsewhere, who are now barely containing their mirth at the GOP’s predicament, will be laughing out of the other sides of their mouths.

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