Hurricane Irene left US territory amid the expected references to the old song “Goodnight, Irene”. Fortunately for the northeast Atlantic coast, the most populated region in the US, the winds slowed a bit after the storm went over the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Storm surge flooding makes up the vast majority of coastal damage. Utility companies are working overtime to restore power to over seven million residents. Airports are open but getting all the stranded travelers to their destinations may take days. But Wall Street returned to trading this morning; businesses and schools are reopening in many areas.
(North of New York City, a deluge of rain caused river flooding, washing away homes and roads. No emergency supplies or crews were stationed in those areas. Hopefully state agencies and FEMA will not neglect these people just because they are not on the coast.)
Now the political fallout, grandstanding and exploitation begins.
Some are questioning whether the evacuations, transit closings, etc. were too extreme. That’s easy to say when the storm turns out to be less severe than expected. Maybe the northern stretches of the coast could have waited longer to issue orders – and then made adjustments when Irene was downgraded to category 1 – but with dense populations, time must be allowed to move all the people.
Many comparisons are being made to the Hurricane Katrina response. These have been favorable, but one must remember that Irene was not as strong as Katrina. Even the best prepared city would have some problems with a storm of Katrina’s intensity.
FEMA has done a great job. They had at least two Incident Management Teams (which normally handle Western wildfires, but were also deployed post-Katrina) stationed near areas likely to be affected. FEMA did make a PR mistake: They announced publicly that they would need to divert some funds from the Joplin, Missouri tornado recovery to Hurricane Irene recovery. Emergency agencies must make these triage-type decisions all the time, but they usually don’t publicize them. The Senators from Missouri reacted negatively, of course. But they shouldn’t worry. There is just a month before the end of the federal fiscal year, with limited budget funds remaining. FEMA is just delaying long-term recovery work in favor of urgent, sometimes life-threatening, needs. All the Joplin projects should be in FEMA’s next budget.
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has not gotten enough praise for his clear, precise emergency plans. They covered all the important components without being extreme. Some visitors may be upset that they couldn’t see a Broadway show on their vacation, but that is probably the worst hardship people endured as a result of Bloomberg’s disaster preparations.
Those using Hurricane Irene for personal or political advantage were talking as soon as the storm left the Bahamas. The global warming fanatics are out in full force. In 2004 when we ran through the alphabet naming storms, it seemed some credence could be given to claims that ocean warming is causing more and stronger hurricanes. Epic hurricanes were predicted for 2005, but the number of major storms was actually less than average. (Katrina and Rita were horrific disasters for the US, but as much for human errors as for the impact of the storms.) In the years since, meteorologists have predicted above average numbers of major storms every hurricane season, but the predictions have not come to pass in any year so far. If you look at weather history, you see that hurricanes move up the US Atlantic coast (as Irene did) during cycles of warm Atlantic-cool Pacific such as we are experiencing now.
The other groups exploiting this disaster are those who want more government “stimulus” spending. Some advocate all kinds of infrastructure spending, regardless of whether it is tied to hurricane prone areas. Others are suggesting projects that would at last reduce problems in natural disasters, but there are still problems with these plans. I heard one Democratic “strategist” suggest that the federal government should put money into placing utility lines underground. That’s a great idea, but the federal government does not have the right to tell a municipality or utility company how and when to deal with its infrastructure. Does the city or the federal government get to decide which repair, maintenance or construction projects should be undertaken first? Should a city change the timeframe of their street maintenance and other projects to allow a stimulus project to proceed quickly?
(There is also the question of whether “stimulus” really stimulates the economy. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in early 2009. Two ARRA projects were begun in my area in 2010. One was finally finished this summer, two years after the legislation passed. Unless all the money is released within a short time frame, the stimulating effect is diluted.)
The House of Representatives has passed a bill to provide FEMA with disaster relief funding, using spending cuts to keep from raising the deficit. Let’s hope the Senate can come together to pass and quickly send it for President Obama’s signature.
And I hope politicians and special interest groups will just be quiet and let the focus stay on those who need help immediately.
As in any natural disaster, FEMA cannot feed everyone. The Salvation Army, Red Cross, Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief and others always fill the gap by filling stomachs. Those of us who have a dry home and full refrigerator can help by donating to our favorite nonprofit that provides disaster relief.