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.”

Tracking Hurricane Sandy

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.

“This is going to be a big and powerful storm,” the president told reporters at the White House on Monday. A day earlier, Obama visited FEMA headquarters and said his administration would provide the best possible response to the big and messy storm system.

Romney planned to stick with campaign events Monday in Iowa and Ohio, but canceled events in Virginia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Romney spoke with officials at FEMA and the National Weather Service and with Republican Govs. Robert F. McDonnell (Va.) and Chris Christie (N.J.) to keep tabs on storm preparations. Aides said he planned on calling Democratic governors. In an e-mail to supporters Sunday night, Romney also encouraged people to donate to the Red Cross.

Aides said Romney campaign offices would continue collecting supplies to donate later to storm victims — a move that goes against the advice of professional emergency managers, who have long advised that donations of money and blood are more critical in the hours before and after a storm.

“Large amounts of donations cause significant management problems for those seeking to aid victims,” said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “People often donate things that are not needed or requested. Standard advice is to give money to legitimate charities like the Red Cross and to other entities that are capable of managing those funds.”

Tierney, who has studied the government’s response to natural disasters for decades, said she was unaware of any serious effort to privatize FEMA beyond the comments made by Romney and other GOP presidential candidates last year.“It’s well known that many states lack the capacity to do a lot of what is needed in the areas of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery, and especially in these fiscal times, I just cannot envision states doing a very good job in the disaster area on their own, without federal carrots and sticks,” she said, adding that FEMA already maintains strong ties to the public sector, especially through partnerships with national retailers, which often deploy supplies after a storm.

“The U.S. has a good infrastructure for managing hazards and disasters that is widely considered to be the best in the world,” Tierney added. “It certainly has its faults, but, basically, it’s a sound system that appears to be able to learn from its mistakes,” including the response to Katrina, she said.

FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate has batted away questions before about possible privatization of his agency: “I’m too busy working on other stuff. Ask that to somebody who would give you the time and day to answer that,” he said when asked by The Washington Post in a September 2011 interview.

Fugate and Obama have earned praise for restoring the agency’s reputation in the years since Katrina. Despite working for then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as head of the state’s emergency agency, Fugate said he rebuffed overtures from George W. Bush to lead FEMA after Katrina, saying that the GOP administration did not want to rebuild the agency in the fashion since embraced by Obama.

Although President Bill Clinton revamped FEMA after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, observers say the agency suffered from budget cuts and a lack of professional emergency managers during the George W. Bush administration, including the appointment of then-Administrator Michael D. Brown, who had no professional experience in disaster response.

Congress has broadened FEMA’s authority so that the agency can respond in advance of major storms, instead of waiting for governors to request federal aid after a disaster strikes. The measures earned plaudits from then-Gov. Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana — usually tough Obama critics — and professional emergency managers who had sought the changes for years.

“We have a much better and more capable FEMA than we’ve had at various times in the past,” said Randy Duncan, director of the emergency management agency in Sedgwick County, Kan., and a leader of the International Association of Emergency Managers. “We very much like seeing people with a professional background in emergency management occupy that federal post. We think that it is inappropriate to put someone in that position based solely on political merit. We need a professional emergency manager in there.”

Jim Mullen, director of the Washington State Emergency Management Division and president of the National Emergency Management Association, said Obama’s legacy at FEMA has been restoring “strong professional emergency managers who can attract other emergency management professionals and support the ones already there and make certain that on this, at least, we should all be willing to put everything else aside and do what’s necessary for our country.”

Debate over whether the storm helps or hurts Obama or Romney politically is likely to continue, but some have suggested that a well-planned federal response could bolster the president in the closing days of the campaign.

“The American people look to him, and I’m sure he will conduct himself and play his leadership role in a fine fashion,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “So I would imagine that might help him a little bit.”

Some emergency managers say that if Romney wins, he would be wise to ask Fugate to continue leading FEMA to maintain the stable working arrangement between the agency’s career staffers and political appointees.

“In any organization, there’s the career team and there’s the team from one administration to another,” Mullen said. “Those teams need to be able to mesh, and that’s what we’ll be looking for.”

Obama’s changes at FEMA “have been night and day” compared with those under previous administrations, according to one veteran emergency manager who was not authorized to speak publicly for fear of jeopardizing federal disaster grant requests. “I don’t know who will be the next president, but they can’t put a political hack in the job of leading FEMA ever again.”