FEMA aid comes with a price

Monday November 26, 2012

The Barre Montpelier Times Argus, Nov. 21, 2012

While the majority of the postelection focus has been on the future of the Republican Party, the Democrats have an equally important task ahead of them in defining what the party stands for in regard to the federal government. The Democrats have put themselves squarely on the side of an activist federal government, a government that provides a floor beneath which no citizens can or should fall, through broad programs like Medicaid, welfare spending, federal education requirements and on and on.

The Republicans long ago built a philosophy that is suspicious of the reach of the federal government -- perhaps best embodied by the oft-quoted Reagan quip, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help."’

While Democrats see this Republican criticism of government as a criticism of the desire to help one another and defend the common good, that is far from the truth.

In 2012 Democrats cast the Republicans as the party of "You’re on your own," but the truth is that the long battle to build a social safety net has created a vast bureaucracy that can and often does systematically crush the individual under its weight.

Nowhere is this more apparent right now than in the Federal Emergency Management Agency response to Hurricane Sandy -- and its response to the dozens of disasters across our country in the last 10 years. Over that stretch of time, FEMA has offered more than $80 billion in assistance to state and local governments and private citizens in their time of most dire need. This aid is welcome, if not absolutely essential. But it comes with a price, and with strings attached.

Vermonters, and tens of thousands of people up and down the coast of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, welcomed the federal employees and contractors who arrived to help after the disasters of flooding and destruction caused by Sandy and Irene. On an individual level, these were friendly, helpful people, often with their own stories of survival and perseverance, and with an earnest desire to lend a hand.

But as Vermonters learned (if they didn’t already know), and the East Coast residents affected by Sandy are learning, all too often the weight of federal and state bureaucracy overwhelms the resources and ingenuity of the individual. Small towns of 800, while welcoming the money and reimbursement that would help them recover from a disaster that overwhelmed their local resources, struggled under the workload of thousands of pieces of paper, voluminous reports, requirements, regulations and sometimes idiotic rules and delay.

One of the more stark examples of arcane regulations trumping good sense was the fact that FEMA would reimburse towns only for a replacement culvert that was the same size as the one washed away -- and not for a larger diameter channel that could prevent the same damage from recurring.

It’s just a culvert. Make it bigger, and it won’t flood so easily.

Far beyond the scope of Vermont, the federal government has subsidized hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction in coastal areas that are repeatedly flooded -- all with no eye to building differently to prevent the same disaster in the future.

To Republicans, the answer to this inefficiency is simple: privatization and decentralization. The Democrats have yet to craft a viable counter.


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