E is for Emergency

August 29, 2011 | By Adrianne Fielding | Post a Comment

First of all, I hope that you’re safe and dry, wherever you are.  Second, speaking from personal experience, never take a Caribbean island vacation during hurricane season.  Third, if you ever have a Plan B that includes a spontaneous road trip through the mountains of West Virginia (on a calm day), do it – it’s truly beautiful, and it may end up being the most enjoyable and relaxing part of your Caribbean island vacation.

With at least 18 deaths and millions without electricity in its wake, Hurricane Irene was a big, slow, mean storm. Although the hurricane has officially cleared out, the impacts are far from over in some areas.  Flash flood watches are still active and evacuations are still happening as late as this morning in some inland areas of New England.  Many bridges have washed out and some communities have become virtually unrecognizable, disappearing in a rage of liquid misery.  For example, yesterday in normally bucolic Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts (taken by Larry Bruffee):

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Over the past few days, the president declared a state of emergency for 11 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico, which enables those areas to get federal disaster-related assistance and funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Puerto Rico was actually declared a “major disaster,” which is one level more serious than a state of emergency.

FEMA’s state-specific webpages related to Hurricane Irene include ones for Vermont – where even some disaster recovery centers are closed today because of the storm – and Massachusetts – which is still under severe flooding and evacuations in the Western part of the state.

As the press releases on these pages indicate, the president’s disaster declarations authorize FEMA to reimburse affected areas for 75 percent of their disaster response costs. A Reuters post from yesterday on the local impact of the hurricane notes that the recession and recent cuts to state disaster budgets have left them even less prepared for the costs of emergency response.

Nevertheless, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), from one of the states hardest hit by the hurricane, has continued to insist that any federal spending – including spending to clean up after Irene and other disasters – be offset by cuts in other areas.  A clip of his statement is embedded in this blog post.

To step away for a moment from the neutral stance we try to take here: you have got to be kidding me. With peoples’ lives and livelihoods still on the line, Cantor wants to have communities listening to hold music while Congress looks between the cushions of the couch?  Other than twiddling their thumbs, what are citizens to do in the meantime – grab a mop and a bucket?  The “e” in FEMA stands for “emergency” – and when one is declared, it’s not the time for policy debates (never mind the groaning pace of federal spending negotiations). When hours and days can have material and devastating impacts on public safety and health, some things should simply be nonnegotiable.  Just because Capitol Hill is above flood level doesn’t mean that its common sense should be.

(Any of you who’d like to wash my mouth out with Caribbean sand at this point may prefer this post in support of Cantor’s stance.)

Photo credit: Adrianne Fielding

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