Frankel: Sandy further evidence of FEMA’s importance

A little over a week ago, Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast. Many of the areas hit, including New Jersey, New York City and Long Island, N.Y. were disastrously ill-equipped to prepare for the storm, as hurricanes are an uncommon occurrence in these regions. Communities within this area of New York, such as Staten Island, the Rockaway Peninsula and Long Beach, were decimated beyond recognition due to flooding and fires resulting from the storm. As these communities rebuild, the importance of federal disaster relief has never been clearer.

Power for those in lower Manhattan was not restored until six days after the storm, and as I write this article, many residents of the outer boroughs, Long Island and New Jersey are still in the dark.

Flooding, too, remains a daunting issue for these areas. The high water in lower Manhattan and New Jersey forced residents to stay inside their homes for days at a time with limited resources. The water in New Jersey is just now beginning to recede.

Breezy Point, a working-class neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. home to a high number of first responders for the New York City Fire Department, was hit by a 14-foot storm surge and suffered a devastating fire, which turned 111 homes to smoldering rubble and damaged 20 more.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was on the ground cleaning up from day one. Workers helped to drain floodwater and hand out supplies to those in need. President Barack Obama’s efforts in deploying federal aid have been widely praised, even by frequent critic New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

FEMA has been under attack at times during the presidential campaign for being symptomatic of excessive government spending. In the Republican primaries, numerous candidates expressed a desire for disaster relief to be handed over to the states.

The issue should not be political. The need for a strong, federally funded disaster relief resource should be a given. Leaving disaster relief up to the states is a solution absolutely devoid of logic. It is predicated on the inherently flawed premise that a state with ravaged infrastructure can rebuild itself without outside assistance. Not to mention, FEMA is only called in for aid when states exhaust their own relief efforts.

To see what happens when natural disasters are handled at a local level, one only has to look at the 2010 Russian wildfires. Volunteers were responsible for subduing the fire after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had cut the number of forest rangers.

In Moscow, authorities dodged questions about the danger of the fires as the air filled with toxic smoke and death rates quadrupled. Four relief shelters were eventually set up – for a city of almost 12 million. The wildfires resulted in $15 billion in damages and an estimated 56,000 deaths.

Even with the full cooperation of the federal government, relief efforts for Sandy are far from over. That is not a testament to the inefficiency of federal bureaucracy; rather, it is indicative of just how unprecedented the effects of this storm were on the region. With global climate change continuing unabated, storms such as Sandy will only become increasingly common.

The tri-state area will eventually recover, but it will not be easy and it will take a long, long time. And yes, it will take money – money spent by the federal government. Despite the tough economic times, we cannot compromise the protection federal relief efforts give us. In the end, it will only be more costly – in dollars and in lives.