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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT