Compared with the Biblical flooding and wanton destruction along the New Jersey shore and the images of Lower Manhattan plunged into darkness, it isn’t much, but it’s something: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of Mitt Romney’s most visible supporters and a politician who’s risen to national prominence by excoriating the excesses and inefficiency of the public sector, can’t stop complimenting the federal government’s response to Hurricane Sandy. In television interview after television interview, the voluble Republican has sung the praises of the Obama administration and, in particular, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “I have to say, the administration, the president himself, and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding,” Christie told ABC’s Good Morning America. “We have a great partnership with them.”
Sandy is the worst natural disaster to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina. Among that 2005 storm’s many casualties was the public’s faith in the federal government to come to the rescue in the face of disaster. FEMA became a punch line. With Sandy, the consensus is that the agency has done its job very well so far—coordinating and supporting the responses of state and local governments and directing federal resources, manpower, and money where they’re most needed. As of Oct. 31, there were 2,276 FEMA personnel deployed along the East Coast. The agency had performed 700 rescues and brought 2.5 million liters of water and 1.5 million meals to the area. In New York and New Jersey, 10,979 people were in FEMA shelters. If Katrina showed how far FEMA had fallen, Sandy has shown how far it’s come since then and suggests Washington can, in fact, learn from its mistakes.
The idea that the federal government is responsible for helping Americans survive natural disasters and then dig out from their aftermath is relatively new. For much of U.S. history, any federal aid was ad hoc. Congress would pass a law specifying how it would help a particular town or state in the wake of a particular act of God. As the resources and responsibilities of the federal bureaucracy grew, a hodgepodge of more than 100 agencies and departments acquired responsibility over pieces of disaster response, from highways to dams to nuclear plants. At the request of the nation’s governors, who’d grown frustrated trying to figure out which office in Washington to call for what, President Carter created FEMA in 1979.
At first, the agency mostly cut checks to help pay for state and local efforts, and its mandate was shaped by the fears—domestic and foreign—of the day. In its early years, more than half the agency’s budget was devoted to preparing for the aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack, rather than the actual disasters Mother Nature threw at the nation. When Hurricane Andrew, then the most expensive storm in U.S. history, decimated wide swaths of Florida in 1992, it also laid bare FEMA’s shortcomings; in some parts of the state it took days for food, supplies, and personnel to arrive. One of the enduring sound bites of the disaster was the emergency management director of Dade County lashing out against Washington at a news conference: “Where in the hell is the cavalry?” George H. W. Bush, then president, was widely blamed for the slow response.
Bill Clinton took office the next year determined not to let that happen to him. “Clinton thought, I think correctly, that Andrew probably cost George H. W. Bush being reelected,” says George Haddow, a former FEMA deputy chief of staff. Clinton elevated FEMA to a cabinet-level agency and named James Lee Witt, Arkansas’s emergency manager, to head it. Witt was the first person with disaster experience to lead FEMA. Former administrators tended to be well-connected ex-military officers or presidential pals.
Witt shifted the focus of the agency away from nukes and toward natural disasters and turned the agency into a body that did much more than spread money around after the fact. “There was substantial progress in making the agency capable of actually coming in to provide bodies and equipment and resources,” says Andrew Sachs, a former FEMA official who served under Witt.
But under George W. Bush, the agency once again lost political altitude. FEMA was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security, and the bulk of the money it paid out to states and municipalities went toward protecting against terrorist attacks. Neither of Bush’s first two FEMA heads, Joe Allbaugh, a former campaign aide, and Michael Brown, the former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, had emergency management experience. When Katrina hit, FEMA—slow to provide resources and unable to bring order to hapless state and local efforts—became part of the disaster.
Like Clinton, Obama seems intent on avoiding the mistakes of his predecessor. His FEMA administrator, Fugate, is the widely respected former head of emergency management in Florida. With Sandy, the administration took the unusual step of speeding up early approvals of federal “major disaster declarations” in states along the hurricane’s expected path, making it easier and faster for governors to apply for money from FEMA’s $3.6 billion disaster fund. Last year, Obama signed off on 242 disaster declarations, the most since 1996—a number large enough that Republicans have accused him of turning federal relief into a form of patronage politics.
Coming a week before Election Day, Sandy inevitably became campaign fodder (Mitt Romney hastily rebranded an Ohio rally as a storm relief event and Obama cut short a campaign trip to Florida to monitor the hurricane from the White House.) In a GOP primary debate last year, Romney suggested states should handle their own disaster recovery. Democrats were quick to unearth this moment, which went largely unnoticed at the time.
As both Presidents Bush learned the hard way, Romney messes with FEMA at his peril. Americans may not have always demanded the federal government rescue them from floods and fires, but they do now. In a campaign that’s centered on the nebulous question of how big the government should be and how much it should do, this is a clear, bright line—especially for any president who wants to keep his job.