The Need for Strong Federal Government During City Disasters

A friend of mine in London asked how things were in New York in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Where I live in Brooklyn there was nearly no damage: a few trees were felled by the wind, storefronts using Verizon had to start dealing in cash (though this being Brooklyn that wasn’t exactly a huge change), and there were a lot more families out in the daylight hours with most New York schools closed. The devastation in Hoboken, Long Island, Queens, and Coastal New Jersey is extensive. New York’s subway system is in dire straits with major lines still closed. Manhattan below 34th street has been dark since Monday.

At the end of my email I couldn’t help but talk about the relationship between the Federal and local governments at times like these.

At one point in my career I was paid to educate local and regional financial administrators on how they can best stretch their dollars in order to invest in infrastructure development. For non-Federal entities, innovative financing is the only way to get projects done most of the time. State and municipal governments are legally bound to balanced budgets, they are not allowed to spend money they don’t have unlike the Federal government that can run astronomical deficits without worrying about the specter of bankruptcy—though some pundits would have you think otherwise. Regional transportation and planning officials often have to go to the Federal government and apply for those dollars and, often, they’re wrapped in red tape and marked with arcane regulations on spending, management, and delivery. The Federal government is lumbering by design—if they screw up it’s taxpayer money they’ve bungled, so the process is deliberate and glacial.

With disasters like Sandy this can be a blessing and a curse. Local governments (no, not even the city-state of NYC has the coffers for independent emergency management) cannot afford to deploy every asset they have during one disastrous week. If Gov. Christie, who has been doing a spectacular job at managing a devastating natural disaster, hasn’t applied for Federal fund he would have had to choose where to put his limited resources. FEMA (and dear lord, has there ever been a Federal agency who has had a bigger reputation transformation than FEMA in the last week?) has become an essential part of the recovery landscape and, for those who would espouse the need for states to have the say in how their emergency assets are spent, does not dictate how the Federal funds are spentStates apply for the funds, FEMA gives it to them, and States use the funds where they think it is prudent.

Look, the governmental response to Hurricane Sandy hasn’t been perfect with citizens having to take charge in neighborhoods like Red Hook and the Lower East Side because of the overwhelming need for emergency services all over New York and New Jersey. But there is a serious cognitive disconnect when pundits talk about the need for stronger state’s rights during natural disasters like this. New York City and New Jersey (the most urbanized state in the country), a city with an Independent mayor and a state with a Republican governor, understand the need for a strong Federal government during harrowing events like Hurricane Sandy, let’s hope the reaction from FEMA and the entire Obama administration makes that crystal clear.

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