Saturday, May 19, 2012

FEMA and the Tea Party: Those Limited Government Blues

(Photo by Laurie Skrivan,
by Nomad

n March of this year, when The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) denied requests for disaster relief from two Illinois towns that had been devastated by a February 29 tornado, no doubt many residents were mighty sore at such lack of empathy from Washington.

FEMA had determined that homeowner's insurance, local charities and state funds could cover those requests. It also noted that according to their analysts, the damage to Harrisburg and Ridgeway did not measure up to requirements for federal assistance. (Photos suggested otherwise.)

Until It Happens to You
The tornado that struck southern Illinois was one of the most powerful twisters in recent decades. With 170-mph winds, the twister killed seven people in the small town of Harrisburg, and damaged or leveled hundreds of buildings.

This kind of disaster is impossible to guard adequately against, especially in terms of property. One minute your life is stable, comfortable and happy and, ten minutes later, the pointy finger of God drags his fingernail through your happy town and leaves you sitting amid broken walls and miles of debris. Of course, if it has never happened to you, to your community, then it would be hard to understand how traumatic it is.

The mayor of Harrisburg, Eric Gregg, took FEMA's decision hard and told reporters:
"We just feel very strongly that our people need help. Even those who had homeowners’ insurance, what we're finding is that, okay, they come in, they'll pay for certain things, but the homeowners are going to be out thousands of dollars dealing with this catastrophe."
Dick Durbin, Democratic senator from the state, also objected to the agency's assessment and vowed to appeal the decision. Likewise, Governor Pat Quinn said that he would appeal the FEMA’s denial of assistance. He told reporters:
“After personally surveying the damage and talking to many residents who lost their homes, I firmly believe federal assistance is crucial to help them begin the recovery process.”
According to the Chicago Tribune,
In the state's aid request, Illinois officials estimated they would need about $3 million in federal aid for recovery efforts to rebuild or repair destroyed homes and businesses.
That's a lot of money for you and me but for the government, it's a drop in the budgetary bucket. Still, every penny counts when there's a clamor about wasteful spending by the opposition. Right?

The FEMA administrator, W. Craig Fugate, explained the reasoning behind the decision,
"Based on our review of all the information available, it has been determined that damage was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state."
FEMA had earlier come under fire for similarly denying relief to residents in several northern Missouri counties. In the end, the Harrisburg community was forced to fed for itself. The mayor made it clear that the people of his community were not asking for a handout.
“We’re not ones to sit around in southern Illinois. We’re taking the initiative to move forward even if our hearts are broken."
The Deacon of the First Baptist Church in Harrisburg, Ron Morse, was able to see a positive side to the catastrophe:
“Thank God people have stepped up,” Deacon Morse says. “You want to talk about how bad the country is, but when we have a serious situation, people come together. And not just the Christian people, either.”
The Christian ethic of helping neighbors in time of distress unfortunately doesn't always seem to translate so easily on a national scale as we shall see. 
As the good deacon noticed, this philosophy is not only a Christian code to live by, many other religions recognize it as a fundamental rule of faith. And for those who more secular, lending a hand to the afflicted without discrimination is mark of civilized society. Conversely, a society without compassion is, most people would say, more or less uncivilized.

Let's put the request to FEMA in perspective. Things were not always so parsimonious at that agency. 
Both parties agree that FEMA under the Bush administration was allowed to run rampant. During the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, according to the New York Times,  poorly-managed and corrupt disaster relief programs "produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion." 
The article states:
The estimate of up to $2 billion in fraud and waste represents nearly 11 percent of the $19 billion spent by FEMA on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as of mid-June, or about 6 percent of total money that has been obligated.
The examples of waste were startling:
The $7.9 million spent to renovate the former Fort McClellan Army base in Anniston, Ala., included fixing up a welcome center, clinic and gymnasium, scrubbing away mold and installing a protective fence between the site and a nearby firing range. But when the doors finally opened, only about 10 people showed up each night, leading FEMA to shut down the shelter within one month.

The mobile homes, costing $34,500 each, were supposed to provide temporary housing to hurricane victims. But after Louisiana officials balked at installing them inland, FEMA had no use for them. Nearly half, or about 10,000, of the $860 million worth of units now sit at an airfield in Arkansas, where FEMA is paying $250,000 a month to store them.
A natural disaster followed by a man-made disaster followed by a financial disaster. That pretty much sums up the entire eight years under the Bush administration. 
And it was not just waste but wholesale corruption; that is, people who saw the Katrina disaster as a means of "ripping off" the government. There's more to be found on this subject at this earlier post related to the career of one of FEMA's directors.) 
It was more than just a combination of incompetence and too much money at its disposal. As the Northwest Labor Press reported after the disaster:
The federal government is poised to spend more than $50 billion to rebuild areas destroyed by the hurricane, particularly in the city of New Orleans. Some of the first large-scale relief and recovery contracts were awarded on a no-bid basis to corporations with strong ties to the Bush Administration and the Republican Party, (emphasis mine) according to news stories in the Wall Street Journal and other media.

The no-bid deals include $100 million contracts to the Fluor Corp., a major donor to the GOP, and the Shaw Group, which is a client of Joe M. Allbaugh, President Bush’s campaign manager in 2000 and the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Meanwhile, Halliburton Co. subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root Services received a $29.8 million clean-up contract, while Halliburton, formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney, is doing repair work at three Navy facilities in Mississippi under an existing contract.
That was a different day, before President Obama, when the Republicans were ok with throwing vast sums away irresponsibly, when they were quite happy to look the other way when corruption helped to empty the coffers of FEMA, all with no thought where it would lead. Now, under a Democratic president, things are less frivolous. 

Brownie Points and Threats
Nevertheless, on the surface, FEMA's Illinois decision certainly seems tight-fisted. However, before anybody begins railing against the heartless, incompetence of the Obama administration, it is also important to remember that this is exactly the kind of limited government and responsible spending that groups like the Tea Party have been demanding. 

In September of last year, a package of disaster relief funding worth $7 billion was blocked from coming up for a vote by Senate Republicans, prompting the Senate Majority leader Harry Reid to blast the conservatives.
“Last night, Democrats tried to move forward on a measure that would have granted the Federal Emergency Management Agency additional funding to help communities devastated by natural disasters.”
And he added:
“This ought to be the least political issue going – whether to reach out a helping hand to our friends and neighbors in their time of need.. They have lost friends and loved ones. Their homes, businesses and livelihoods have been destroyed by acts of God. Their communities are under water or reduced to rubble. It’s in our power to help them. But last night Republicans overwhelmingly voted to prevent us from coming to their aid. They prevented us from getting disaster aid to American families and businesses that need it now.”
Eric Cantor
For his part, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) stated that House Republicans would include a much smaller package of relief funds, attached to a budget request needed to keep the government operating through the end of September. On that occasion Mr. Cantor said:
"There is an appropriate federal role in incidents like this ... all of us know that the federal government is busy spending money it doesn't have."
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Jesse Ferguson responded,
“It’s outrageous Republican leadership would demand cuts to things like Medicare or education to fund this needed disaster relief but remain unwilling to demand Big Oil and multi-millionaires pay their fair share."
So, whether some angry voters want to admit it or not, the FEMA decision is a direct outcome of supporting the Tea Party and their policies. Once the darling of the Tea Party, early in 2011 Cantor ran afoul of the organization in his own state , when he opposed a congressional amendment that would have made deeper cuts to the federal budget.
At that time, Mark Lloyd the chairman of the Virginia Federation of Tea Party Patriots, announced
"We are extremely disappointed in Eric Cantor, but not surprised. The will of the American people was pretty clear in November — cut, cut, cut spending. Apparently, Eric Cantor's 'conversion' to fiscal restraint was only temporary."
Another activist with the Bedford Franklin Tea Party in southern Virginia, said
"We want to hold his feet to the fire, so that means no raising the debt limit and no new taxes. If he holds to that, then he'll pick up some more brownie points with us, if you will. If he caves, people are going to be really, really mad at him, worse than they were a few months ago. The president is ratcheting up the pressure to raise the debt ceiling and taxes ... come election time next year, people are going to start looking to see how Mr. Cantor stacked up."
Sounds like a lot of wasted testosterone there. 

However, apparently the Tea Party threats worked and Cantor fell in line with the tax cutting mantra. Four months later, Cantor obviously decided that playing politics with FEMA funds was one way to satisfy both the Tea Party and his super wealthy corporate backers. It was a cynical gamble. Cantor was banking that the Democrats cared more about the needs of the people in need of disaster aid than the Republican Tea Party did. And apparently he was correct.

Woe to the people of Illinois but this is what happens when a major political party allows a fringe group to hijack the agenda. For the rest of the nation, get prepared. Someday a disaster will happen to you and then you will feel the sting of a smaller government and the cut, cut cut. 
I hope the people of tornado-prone Midwest, the people of the hurricane-prone Gulf coast and Atlantic seaboard, and the voters of the earthquake-prone Pacific coast understand where this childish pissing contest will leave them. 

Perhaps voters will eventually learn that the elections are a bit more important than American Idol contests. There are real consequences to the outcome of the elections. 
They are going to have to learn that the financially-responsible and low taxed vision which the Tea Party dreams for America looks, for some of us, very much like the devastation in Harrisburg and Ridgeway. 
But on a national scale.

Update: h/t to Sarah Reese Jones for her tweeter tip
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida may not have enough money to pay off hurricane insurance claims if a big storm hits this year.

An advisory panel on Thursday concluded that the state may fall nearly $2 billion short of the total needed to cover all of its obligations and is urging that Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials consider borrowing money now to fill the gap.

Florida created a backstop for insurers after Hurricane Andrew, which caused widespread damage when it slammed into the state nearly 20 years ago.

The Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund offers insurance companies reinsurance at prices generally lower than those in the private market. It was designed to help keep private insurers from leaving the state. Every company is required to purchase coverage.

Heading into this storm season, the fund would be liable for about $17.3 billion. It is expected to have more than $8.5 billion in cash reserves by the end of this year, but it would need to borrow the rest if a storm hit.
US News & World Report hailed Florida Governor Rick Scott's budget for this year in such glowing terms that had me questioning whether it was some kind of Tea Party press release:
It’s the kind of budget that the Tea Party Nation can get excited about—making it a model for what other reform-minded governors may want to do in their states. If he’s successful, it almost assuredly gets him on the short list for vice president in 2012 or, depending on the outcome of that election, for president in 2016.
I guess Governor Scott will just keep his fingers crossed that there will not be any major hurricanes to strike Florida as they do nearly every season. Good luck, Rickie.

Unfortunately for the governor, tonight Reuters is reporting that there's an area of low pressure 120 miles southeast of Myrtle Beach South Carolina. This meteorologists suggest, could mean that the hurricane season may start early this year. The season, the article says, officially runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, but storms outside that time frame are not uncommon.