The Politics of Natural Disasters

As natural disasters go, President Obama has – knock on wood – been luckier than his predecessor.  That thought came to me on Monday as I waited for emergency crews to reconnect the power and telephone lines to my house. Both had been severed by a single tree felled during tropical storm Irene’s leisurely jaunt through Vermont at  the tail end of its travels up the eastern seaboard.  I was lucky – the tree only grazed the house, power was restored after a day, and I was spared the flooding that hit much of Vermont, including throughout my town, and which completely cut off communication with at least a dozen nearby Vermont communities.  As of today, helicopters are ferrying supplies to those communities while road crews work around the clock to repair damaged roads. And I have been busy cutting firewood.

Make no mistake – it could have been much worse. It is true that Vermont took a historic beating, with water levels in many rivers and creeks cresting at heights never previously recorded.  And the cleanup is only beginning.  It will be days, and even weeks, before roads are made passable and power restored to many areas. But the loss of life was minimal – four dead in Vermont and less than 50 in total attributed to the storm so far – in no small part because state and local authorities were proactive in requesting federal emergency authority to mobilize emergency response teams, and in issuing mandatory evacuations.  Indeed, the biggest complaint heard in the aftermath of Irene is that authorities overreacted, particularly in ordering the evacuations.  A full evaluation of the civil authorities’ overall response must await the cleanup efforts, of course, but the initial perception is that the coordination between local, state and federal forces has been relatively smooth.  In Vermont, local officials have taken the lead in the initial emergency preparations and responses, under state coordination. The feds are mostly providing resources and, in time, will provide disaster relief money. That partly reflects the decentralized nature of the storm’s impact, at least in Vermont, where authorities have to deal with 250+ communities, many of them containing less than 1,000 people.  Under these circumstances, local control over relief efforts is imperative.

This, of course, is in stark contrast to what happened in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast while George W. Bush was president.  To be sure, at Category 5, Katrina was a more powerful storm than Irene, which had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached New England.  And New Orleans, as the famous National Geographic film watched by every schoolchild of a certain generation reminded us, is a city that is built largely below sea level, in a bowl-shaped depression. The geography alone meant it was a disaster waiting to happen.  The only question was when.

But, as Time Magazine’s Michael Grunwald documents in the end, Katrina was primarily a man-made, and not a natural disaster. And the primary culprit is one almost no one talks about: the Army Corps of Engineers, whose malfeasance in this instance was aided and abetted for years by the local congressional delegation. The immediate failure was the breaching of the system of flood control levees designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to withstand surging waters from hurricanes.  As it turned out, those levees were poorly designed and constructed, and proved not up to the task. But the more deep-rooted cause of the Katrina catastrophe was the Corps’ policy, at the behest of local members of Congress, of building “water control projects”: levees, dams, artificial lakes and irrigation channels that destroyed thousands of acres of wetlands which provided a natural barrier against storm-induced flooding.  The water projects were intended to benefit local businesses, including fisherman as well as the oil industry.   But by destroying the wetlands, the Corps eliminated a natural shock absorber that would have helped minimize flooding in the delta region.  Given this decades-old policy, it was only a matter of time before a Katrina-like event would flood New Orleans.  It was George W. Bush’s bad luck that it happened on his watch.

This is not to absolve Bush of his share of responsibility – he was, as he later admitted, far too respectful of local and state authority in the initial hours after Katrina struck.  When Louisiana Governor Kathleen Bianco proved slow in requesting the federal government to take charge of the emergency response, Bush hesitated rather than federalizing the National Guard on his own and ordering military troops in as well. Eventually he did so, but by then the damage was done. But Bush’s error was only the latest in a sequence of mistakes, beginning with Mayor Nagin’s initial decision to order a “voluntary” evacuation before making it mandatory and a more general lack of coordination between local, state and federal officials in responding to Katrina.  These errors culminated with FEMA’s botched response under the leadership of Mike (Heckuva job, Brownie) Brown.

As Hurricane Irene headed toward the east coast, it was clear that local politicians, particularly the state governors Christie and Cuomo, and New York Mayor Bloomberg – all of whom are rumored to be potential presidential candidates down the road – were not going to make Bianco’s mistake.  Mindful no doubt of the Katrina precedent, they all moved quickly in requesting authority from Obama to declare an emergency, and when the hurricane hits their states, they made sure to visit constituents, on the ground, to show their concern.  Indeed, I could not listen to a news broadcast without seeing a somber-faced elected official, usually with jacket off and shirt sleeves rolled up, listing the disaster preparation steps that were underway.  And that included the President, who cut short his vacation to return to the White House and give a nationwide address warning of the severity of the hurricane, and who thereafter made sure to visit, along with FEMA director Craig Fugate, local and state emergency crews on the ground in affected areas.  There would be no visuals of Obama flying over disaster areas.

To be sure, Obama is not completely clear of political controversy in Irene’s aftermath; already there is grumbling from some officials that FEMA is pulling money out of relief efforts in other regions hit earlier by tornadoes in order to fund the cleanup in areas affected by Irene.  But so far he has escaped the criticism that befell Bush and his FEMA team (and that Obama endured during the Gulf oil spill crisis, another event for which a president took blame although it was largely Congress’ fault.)   The differing perceptions may say less about their respective handling of the two crises and more about the hurricanes themselves, and where they hit.  If so, it is a reminder that disasters choose their presidents, and not vice versa.

Meamwhile, I leave you with a glimpse of Irene’s local impact: the destruction of an iconic covered bridge in the town of Quechee.

 

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One comment

  1. All I have to offer in response to yet another thoughtful, intelligent Post is my gratitude that you and yours are safe and sound.

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