From: Washington Post
By: Ed O’Keefe
“Wind and rain from Hurricane Sandy battering the East Coast is expected to bring historic rainfall totals and billions of dollars in damage – and provide a stark contrast in how President Obama and Mitt Romney respond to such disasters.
President Obama campaigned four years ago on a promise of revamping the federal government’s disaster response functions and has embraced reforms long-sought by state governors and professional emergency managers. In the last four years, Obama has led the federal response to multiple disasters, including tornadoes, flooding and major hurricanes, learning from the stumbles of George W. Bush’s presidency by ordering federal agencies to aggressively prepare and respond to major storms.
As a governor, Romney requested federal disaster assistance for storm cleanup, and he has toured storm-ravaged communities as a presidential candidate. His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), joined House Republicans in blocking disaster relief funds last year amid disagreements over federal spending — and Romney agreed with suggestions that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be dissolved as part of federal 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 replied: “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 the debate, and aides insisted Monday that Romney would not abolish FEMA as president.
“Gov. 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 Hennenberg. “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 what Romney now believes 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 now 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 six federal emergency disaster declarations in the last 24 hours at the request of state governors, directing FEMA to deploy more resources in anticipation of significant recovery efforts. He abruptly canceled campaign stops for Monday and Tuesday in order to return to the White House to oversee the federal government’s evolving storm response.
“Anything they need, we will be there,” Obama said Sunday in a message to people affected by the storm, adding during a visit to FEMA headquarters that his administration would provide the “best possible response to a big and messy system.”
Romney planned to stick with campaign events Monday in Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin, but canceled events in Virginia and New Hampshire. He also telephoned Republican Govs. Bob McDonnell (Va.) and Chris Christie (N.J.) to keep tabs on storm preparations, and aides said he also planned to call 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, the director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado 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.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has batted away questions before about possibly privatizing 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 by extension, Obama, have earned praise for restoring the agency’s reputation in the years sine Hurricane Katrina. Despite working for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), Fugate said he rebuffed overtures from George W. Bush to rebuild FEMA after Katrina, saying that the GOP administration did not want to rebuild the agency in a fashion since embraced by Obama.
Though Bill Clinton had revamped FEMA following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, observers say the agency suffered from budget cuts and the lack of professional emergency managers during the Bush administration, including the appointment of Michael D. Brown, who had no professional experience in disaster response.
Congress has since 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 changes have earned plaudits in the past from Republican governors Haley Barbour (Miss.) and Bobby Jindal (La.) – usually tough Obama critics — and professional emergency managers who 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, the director of Sedgwick County, Kan. Emergency Management agency 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 Washington State Emergency Management Division and the president of the National Emergency Management Association, said Obama’s legacy at FEMA would be 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 politically helps or hurts Obama or Romney is likely to continue, but already 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 believe that if Romney wins, he would be wise to ask Fugate to continue leading FEMA in order 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 reforms at FEMA “have been night and day” compared to previous administrations, according to one veteran emergency manager 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.”