In 1972, as Congress debated legislation to assist the victims of Hurricane Agnes, then Rep. Ed Koch (D) of New York rose to ask his colleagues why they didn’t extend the same generosity to “the ghettos of Harlem” and other poverty-stricken parts of America. “Do we need the intervention of God before we address ourselves to the problems that man has created?” the future New York City mayor wondered. “I would like to know why it is we distinguish between natural disasters and those made by man.”
It’s a good question, and we still don’t have an answer. Indeed, we’re not even asking it.
Consider the news coverage of hurricane Sandy and next week’s elections, which devolved into a duel of vapid prognostication. Would the hurricane-turned-superstorm help President Obama by allowing him to appear, well, “presidential?” Or would the post-hurricane damage actually make him look worse, giving an eleventh-hour boost to Mitt Romney?
Meanwhile, a minor debate broke out in the blogosphere over what was seen as Mr. Romney’s pledge – during a GOP primary debate – to close the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “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,” Romney said last June, in a quote highlighted by the Huffington Post.
Spokespersons for Romney quickly sought to quell the controversy, insisting that he had been misinterpreted. Yes, they said, Gov. Romney still thinks states should take the lead in addressing disasters. But no, he wouldn’t shutter FEMA.
And that raises the more interesting question: Why not? Even as Romney and the GOP condemn government spending, why does federal emergency relief remain a sacred cow for conservatives and liberals alike?
When Herbert Hoover made his famous trip to flood-ravaged Mississippi in 1927, as secretary of Commerce, he called on state governments and charities – not Uncle Sam – to provide emergency assistance. Even after he ascended to the White House, facing the worst economic crisis in US history, Hoover continued to reject federal relief to struggling localities and individuals. The stopgap measures he implemented late in his term were considered by many – especially voters – to be too little, too late.
After Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Hoover, his New Deal unleashed massive federal spending for public works, farm aid, and much else. Not surprisingly, then, Roosevelt also presided over the first coordinated federal disaster relief. In 1935, he sent thousands of unemployed World War I veterans to Florida to help clean up after a hurricane; more than 200 of them died while doing so.
But direct assistance to affected individuals came much more slowly. In 1950, Congress passed a measure allowing presidents to authorize disaster-related spending on pubic facilities. Yet individuals couldn’t apply for federal aid until the 1969 Disaster Relief Act, passed in the wake of hurricane Camille, which offered temporary housing, unemployment compensation, and small business loans to victims of the tragedy.
Alas, Camille’s most impoverished victims rarely received such aid. Applicants for housing trailers had to show they owned a property lot, while loan seekers needed to put up collateral. Meanwhile, complicated paperwork rules made it nearly impossible for African-Americans – the poorest and least-educated hurricane victims – to receive aid. Of 617 small-business loans issued after Camille in Mississippi, which had the highest percentage of black citizens of any state, just 21 went to non-whites.
Similar reports led President Jimmy Carter to press for the creation of FEMA, which Congress established in 1979. But under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the agency became “a dumping ground for political hacks,” as a House committee reported in 1993. To direct it, Bush had appointed a close friend of his chief of staff with no direct experience in emergency relief.
The next Bush president put FEMA in the hands of Michael D. Brown, whose main “qualification” seemed to be his prior directorship of the International Arabian Horse Association. George W. Bush’s tribute to him during hurricane Katrina – “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” – would become one of the administration’s signal embarrassments, given Mr. Brown's notoriously incompetent handling of the disaster.
Over the next few days, we’ll have a chance to judge Mr. Obama’s own FEMA team. But almost nobody – not even, it appears, Mitt Romney – will suggest that we do away with the agency altogether.
And that brings us back to Ed Koch’s question. Ted Steinberg aptly summarizes it in his book “Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America”: “If Congress was so willing to offer assistance to the victims of natural disaster…why was it so reluctant to offer similar relief to the sufferers of man-mad calamities, people injured by an economic system that deprived them of decent housing and jobs?”
The answer, ironically, lies in the comforting myth that many Americans continue to cling to: Anyone can make it here. Never mind that economic mobility now occurs less commonly in the US than in most other Western democracies, as several recent studies have shown. You can do anything you want, many still insist, if you put your mind to it; and if you fail, well, you’re probably just not trying hard enough.
But lawmakers carve out an exception for natural disasters, which helps reinforce this larger narrative about American success. That’s why we call them “Acts of God,” after all; their victims aren’t at fault. So we offer them a helping hand, however ineptly, and declare the American dream once more open to all.
If Washington really wants to preserve the land of opportunity, lawmakers must consider new ways to help our neediest citizens – and not just after a hurricane. The real issue isn’t what we do when the winds start blowing. It’s what to do when they stop.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).