Hurricane Sandy’s battering of the East Coast is expected to produce historic rainfall totals and cause billions of dollars in damage and wholesale disruptions to the close presidential race. The storm could also provide a moment of sharp contrast between President Obama and Mitt Romney and how their different ideas of governing apply to the federal response to large-scale disasters.
Obama has been aggressive about bolstering the federal government’s capability to respond to disasters, while his Republican challenger believes that states should be the primary responders in such situations and has suggested that disaster response could be privatized.
Obama campaigned four years ago on a promise to revamp the federal government’s disaster-
response functions and has embraced changes long sought by state governors and professional emergency managers. Since becoming president, he has led the federal response to multiple natural disasters, including tornadoes, flooding and major hurricanes, learning from government stumbles during the presidency of George W. Bush — most notably in the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Obama’s posture has been to order federal agencies to aggressively prepare for and respond to major storms and other disasters.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney requested federal disaster assistance for storm cleanup, and he has toured storm-ravaged communities as a presidential candidate, but he has agreed with some who suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be dissolved as part of budget cuts.
When moderator John King suggested during a June 2011 CNN debate that federal disaster response could be curtailed to save federal dollars, Romney said: “Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
Romney has not made similar comments since that debate, and his aides insisted Monday that he would not abolish FEMA if he became president.
“Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” said campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”
But this is exactly how the system currently works: Local and state officials respond to disasters and make requests of the federal government for additional supplies or money only when needed. Reforms enacted since Hurricane Katrina permit governors to make requests in advance to ensure that federal officials are on the ground to assist with initial damage assessments and more quickly report back to Washington for help.
For example, Obama has signed at least nine federal emergency disaster declarations in the past 24 hours at the request of state governors, directing FEMA to deploy more resources in anticipation of significant recovery efforts. He canceled campaign stops for Monday and Tuesday to return to the White House to oversee the federal government’s evolving storm response.