After superstorm Sandy, is there really a Romney-Obama feud over FEMA?

Sandy reopened a debate over government response to disasters. But FEMA and states know their roles pretty well by now – compassion in a crisis is best directed locally, with FEMA as backup.

Kyle Green/The Roanoke Times/AP Photo
A utility worker cuts a tree off of a power line in Roanoke, Va., Oct. 30, after superstorm Sandy.

Sandy has been just the kind of “October surprise” that can so often jumble a presidential contest in its final days. And no wonder. The superstorm cut an 800-mile-wide swath of wind, rain, and ocean surge across a quarter of the American population.

But while the storm’s effect at the ballot box remains to be seen, its timing has reopened a welcome question: What is the proper response of government and private groups in providing relief and aid in a large disaster?

The easy answer is, “It’s still evolving.” After decades of experience, the United States is only beginning to have a workable mix of roles for federal, state, and local governments – with a good share of responsibility left to private groups, from insurance companies to religious groups to charities like the Red Cross.

Much of the credit for this progress goes to the increasing professionalization of first responders, which allows them to work well across bureaucratic lines. The number of colleges that offer degrees in emergency management has tripled since 9/11.

So, too, do voters deserve credit for sending signals to elected leaders who fail to show enough compassion toward those hit by disaster. President George W. Bush, for example, was tarred for a slow federal response to hurricane Katrina. But many local and state leaders have also learned their political future hinges on an ability to reflect the will of voters to help those in dire need.

The mix of public-private roles is open for debate again as voters consider how President Obama and Mitt Romney, in both words and deeds, reacted to Sandy.

Each candidate’s leadership skills are not really part of the debate. During past crises, both men have shown themselves to be able and attentive administrators. Their differences lie in an emphasis on Washington’s role, which is led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA itself, after being reformed following Katrina, emphasizes that it serves as a backup for states and localities. The operating assumption is that local knowledge, local skills, and indeed local compassion are the best responses to a crisis.

Mr. Obama focused on this point in saying, “My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there.” The agency’s director, Craig Fugate, also placed his role in perspective during Sandy, saying, “Residents need to listen to the direction of local officials.”

Yet too often state or local governments haven’t built up the resources to respond well to a tragedy, such as a tornado or flood. Their priorities have been elsewhere. So they often look for money and other assistance from Washington. Romney made that point in a GOP debate last year.

But FEMA’s role, as well as that of many federal agencies, lies mostly in a high level of expertise available at a national level, such as new types of emergency housing or new advances in communication. The agency’s funding, often a political football in Congress, should not be determined by what states are unwilling to do for themselves in responding to basic needs in a disaster.

FEMA can be only as successful as the states in which it is invited to operate. And the more it dominates a response, the less a state or its people work up compassionate resources for future crises.

During Sandy, governors and mayors were the most visible responders, as they should be. So far, they’ve mostly won praise. They best represent public empathy.

If there are really any big differences between Mr. Romney and Obama over FEMA’s role, they are being amplified by the election’s larger debate over government. Voters should decide on that in general. FEMA is doing just fine.

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