Sam Uretsky

The 'You're On Your Own' Party

We thought Hurricane Irene was all ours. We were wrong. Even the national news organizations focused on the idea that a hurricane was headed directly for New York City.

It’s not that NYC is any stranger to natural disasters, we’ve had our share of hurricanes and blizzards, but we have a resentful attitude.

Anyone who has traveled to Manhattan during rush hour knows that we have enough home grown problems without the need for imports. The storm might be starting its trip in North Caroline and working its way through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey like a Metro-Liner on the local track, but it was coming specially to see us. We were sort of right. The eye of the storm did hit the city, but the damage to New York City and its suburbs was comparatively limited. The New York Post, a Rupert Murdoch product, described the event as “Apocalypse Not.”

The real damage was to the inland areas of New York, Vermont and parts of Connecticut. While the damage to these regions is severe, FEMA judged it correctly, and was available to help from the very beginning. The emergency response was set, not where the maps showed the storm to be heading, but where experts predicted the actual damage took place.

That required both prediction of the path, but understanding of the details, of how the storm would affect the rivers and inlets to cause local flooding far from the center of the storm.

FEMA was ready all along the path of Irene with supplies including generators and tarps. They had food and water positioned in advance of need and had accurate predictions of where and when the resources would be needed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) coordinated with state and local authorities and the evacuations went smoothly. Compared with what might have been, the response to Irene was a demonstration of what government can do. The comparison between the response to Irene and the Bush administrations handling of Katrina will be taught for generations to come.

The response to Irene was a graphic illustration of the value of science, and what can be done by government to benefit the people, when the people in charge believe in government. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) summed it up when he said “this is what government is about.” In contrast, you have the opinions of Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Majority Leader, and Ron Paul (R-Texas). Rep. Cantor has made it clear that there will be no Federal Disaster relief without cuts somewhere else in the budget.

A rare East Coast earthquake hit Rep. Cantor’s district, Mineral, Va., but the people there can apply for federal disaster relief as soon as Congress decides whether the money should come from crippled children or the elderly. The tornado victims in Joplin, Mo., can take a share of the money from injured veterans. While climate scientists are warning that climate change may cause more storms like Irene, the response may not be as good next time because deficit hawks are cutting the budgets for FEMA and NOAA, and don’t want to pay for a satellite that’s essential for storm tracking. Meanwhile, there are still requests for disaster aid for Katarina in Louisiana, hurricanes Rita and Gustav, the massive Tennessee floods, and the Alabama towns devastated by tornadoes.

We’re pretty much reduced to a discussion of the proper role of government, and whether disaster relief should be limited to girl scouts setting up food collection stations outside of of supermarkets. But, Irene showed that when government is in the hands of competent people who believe in the role of government, it can do wonderful things. The election of 2012 will answer the question of whether we think these things are worth paying for.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2011

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