A winter storm wake-up call

Story highlights

  • Major winter storm along East Coast dumped more than 3 feet of snow in some areas
  • Juliette Kayyem: No surprise that extreme weather and other disasters have a political impact

CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is the host of the "Security Mom" podcast and author of a forthcoming book, "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Seeing the government response to the blizzard has, at least for now, quieted much of the talk of incompetent and corrupt government that we've been hearing from the campaign trail. It will no doubt be back. But in the meantime, there is nothing that breaks political deadlock quite like a couple of feet of snow.

Two feet of water may be different. As cities begin to dig out of the snow, and people are allowed to get back in their cars, the water running along some of New Jersey's coastal streets looks set to leave locals with headaches that will last long after the snow melts -- in fact, as the high tides came in Saturday night, some areas along the New Jersey coast were already experiencing waist-high flooding. Wind and sinking temperatures could make things even tougher for areas that just a few years ago were hit by Superstorm Sandy.
Juliette Kayyem
With such a palpable impact on people's lives, it's not surprising that extreme weather and other disasters have a political impact. And as someone who used to work in government with elected bosses, I would often remind them that although they might not win campaigns because of the snow, they most certainly could lose because of it.
    But while it goes without saying that citizens need -- and expect -- government to work during times of disaster, they should also expect government to anticipate and mitigate the consequences for the next time around. Because there will be a next time.
    That's where Superstorm Sandy comes in.
    In response to the multibillion-dollar devastation, the federal government passed legislation to help the Eastern Seaboard rebuild stronger and make it more resilient to the inevitable storms that will come in the future -- storms like the one we just had.
    States were asked to put together proposals for how they would use the money to mitigate flooding in the future. Coincidentally, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro last week announced the winners and losers. And New Jersey lost big time.
    It was pathetic. Of the more than $300 million it asked for to support mitigation measures to protect itself from future flooding, it received only $15 million. Yes, that's all -- just 5% of what it hoped for.
    There is a lot of finger-pointing going on right now, but what seems undeniable is that New Jersey simply put together a weak proposal. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is running for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential campaign. But to those who believe the decision was a way for the White House to undermine a GOP contender, it's worth remembering that both the state's senators are Democrats. Instead, there is speculation that HUD tried to get New Jersey to amend its proposals to satisfy federal requirements and that New Jersey just didn't deliver.
    Where does that leave us? In the short term, it leaves New Jersey potentially highly vulnerable now and in the future. Of course, this latest funding would not have meant much to those suffering the effects of the most recent storm. But it certainly does not bode well for the state being able to prepare for future flooding.
    More significantly, it shows how easy it is to get distracted by immediate considerations, while losing sight of the long-term need to invest in our resiliency. Yes, we owe much to first responders, emergency managers and National Guard volunteers who, on days like this, risk their own well-being to protect us. Their well-honed training and commitment to rigorous response capabilities are the most sophisticated in the world. But unless we take seriously the need to focus on the harm that is likely to come our way as a result of massive climate changes and rising seas, little these first responders can do will be able to protect us.
    The interconnected nature of extreme climate events -- a snowstorm that then leads to massive flooding -- makes jurisdictions ever more vulnerable to crises. Yes, the snow will soon be gone. Maybe New Jersey will dry out, and the flooding will not be as bad as many feared, and we will all be able to turn our attention back to the 2016 presidential campaign (and get back to criticizing the government's inability to work).
    The truth is, though, there will be storms and floods and disasters in the future, perhaps more often and more intense. This blizzard isn't the last one we will see; there will be more that test our resiliency. And unless we take planning for disaster seriously -- and get better at it -- we should not be surprised if we keep seeing our streets flooding.