Skip to main content

Sandy shows why we need FEMA

By Jared Bernstein, Special to CNN
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Wed October 31, 2012
Cleaning crews work in Manhattan's financial district following damage from Superstorm Sandy on Monday, November 12. <strong><a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/30/us/gallery/ny-sandy/index.html' target='_blank'>View photos of New York's recovery.</a></strong> Cleaning crews work in Manhattan's financial district following damage from Superstorm Sandy on Monday, November 12. View photos of New York's recovery.
HIDE CAPTION
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
11.sandy.damage.1030
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jared Bernstein says Sandy brought loss of life, devastation to homes, businesses, lives
  • He says over-burdened states rightly turn to federal government for help from FEMA
  • He says Romney, Ryan have proposed block grants for states instead, or privatizing relief
  • Writer: Disasters can outstrip block grants; states strapped. In practice, these ideas won't work

Editor's note: Jared Bernstein is the former chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden.

(CNN) -- I'm writing this from a Dunkin' Donuts in northern Virginia the day after Hurricane Sandy blasted through, wiping out power to millions of homes, including my own. My 13 year-old daughter sits across from me, doing her homework on her laptop. I'm very grateful that Dunkin' is open and has some outlets in the wall and a decent wireless connection -- though for some reason, they don't have any donuts.

So, maybe I'm not in a great place, but I'm lucky. For many families, the storm brought real tragedy, in some cases loss of life and livelihood. Not only is there flooding, with communities devastated, but homes, businesses, and cars have been damaged or lost; for many there are days of missed work -- and missed paychecks. Lower Manhattan on Tuesday morning, with cars strewn about, looked like a scene from "The Avengers."

Politics: Disaster relief -- Obama, Romney differ on federal role

Jared Bernstein
Jared Bernstein

I've seen rough loss estimates of up to $20 billion, of which perhaps half will be replaced by insurance payouts. The realization of how quickly such a natural event can occur should lead us to consider what all this means in terms of responding to this much devastation. When states face disasters of this proportion, one of the first places they turn for help is the federal government, specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Politics: Will you be able to vote on Election Day?

This is as it should be. In fact, it's a great example of why we need a centralized federal government that can respond to states in their time of need. Kind of like an instant recession, a natural disaster is an unexpected event that causes great disruption to the lives of its victims and their communities that is often well beyond the capacity of states to reliably bear. We should of course expect states, as well as private citizens, to respond, and Americans have consistently risen to such moments, showing our deep generosity.

It's times like this that "There but for the grace of God ..." kicks in for many of us.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But neither we as individuals nor our cities or states can do it all ourselves. Imagine, as Mitt Romney has advocated (though not on Tuesday, apparently), that FEMA were eliminated, privatized, or handed off to states in a block grant. Or consider the House Republican budget -- authored by Rep. Paul Ryan and endorsed by Romney during the primaries -- a proposal that would cut 22% from the part of the budget that supports this type of aid to the states, amounting to a loss of $28 billion in 2014, including a $2 billion cut in New York state alone.

Further imagine -- and if you've been following the hundreds of thousands of state layoffs of key personnel in recent months, this shouldn't be a stretch -- that a disaster like Sandy occurred at a time when state budgets are already under great strain (as are many families' budgets).

What Sandy left in its wake - Day 2
Stranded drivers rescued in New Jersey
Christie: Obama has been outstanding
FEMA director: 'Stay inside'

Remember, a block grant is a fixed amount that by definition is unable to expand in times of need. In many ways, it's a fair-weather ship that does fine in calm waters but founders in a storm. Welfare (work-based assistance for poor families with kids), for example, was block granted in the mid-1990s, and it worked adequately when the economy was humming. But when the recession hit, it failed as a safety net, especially compared with federal programs like food assistance or unemployment insurance that handily expanded to meet the recession-induced need.

Opinion: Sandy debunks 'nanny state'

It's unimaginable that we could administer federal disaster relief this way. States like New York and New Jersey would unquestionably need more help in a storm like Sandy, yet we'd have to tell their governors: "Hey, we'd love to help, but if your block grant doesn't cover it, there's nothing we can do about it."

That's obviously ludicrous, and it's also why you'll see avowed partisans like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, showing real decency as he stressed Tuesday how helpful the president has been and how important the federal response is in addressing Sandy's impact in his state.

I hope the storm is a good reminder that when we hear candidates' soothing words about shedding federal government functions, whether it's FEMA, Medicaid, or safety nets in recession, we must think about what that actually means in practice. Disasters happen, recessions happen -- like it or not, there are market failures and natural disasters in our future. If anything, it seems as though these 100-year storms come about every six months these days. (Which reminds me -- here's a great idea for a big, national infrastructure project that will create millions of jobs for white- and blue-collar workers and save billions in lost output: Bury the power lines!)

At the end of the day, we don't need "big" government or "small" government. What we need is an amply funded federal government to meet challenges like those we're facing today, something I'm afraid Romney and Ryan do not understand.

Opinion: Don't let superstorm sway your vote

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jared Bernstein.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT