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Sandy invites storm of political debate

FEMA, maligned after Katrina, shows its worth this week

With dozens dead and thousands losing their homes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have wisely dialed back their presidential campaigns this week. But with Election Day almost upon us, it’s inevitable that the storm has become part of the political conversation.

Sandy, according to progressives, has offered a clear illustration of the value of the federal government, specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has done an exemplary job of preparation and coordination this week. But the storm also has been an example of how states can rise to the moment, say conservatives, who point to first response efforts up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Who’s right? Well, both.

Certainly, the storm was the first major test for FEMA since it failed so spectacularly with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This time, the agency has been applauded for its deft and thorough response to a disaster that struck several metropolitan areas. Those efforts began before the storm arrived, as FEMA placed hundreds of ambulances in the New York area, sent search-and-rescue teams to the mid-Atlantic and placed inspectors at nuclear power plants in Sandy’s path.

Still to come is the complex task of assessing damage and providing more relief, but to this point, the agency’s performance has helped erase some Katrina memories. Credit goes to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, who implemented significant structural changes after being appointed by President Obama in 2009. Congress also gets an assist for giving FEMA the authority, post-Katrina, to respond before storms instead of waiting for governors to request federal aid.

All of which might be uncomfortable for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who last year suggested that emergency management was a task that could be shifted to the states or private industry. “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,” he said at a primary debate last June.

Romney dodged questions this week about FEMA, but his campaign reiterated the principle of shifting at least some of its responsibilities to states, which already handle a lion’s share of emergency response. It’s a risky proposition. States like New Jersey and New York have shown this week how capable they are handling their roles, but residents might not be so lucky in other states if lawmakers move money away from emergency management during difficult economic times.

Still, Romney’s larger point is legitimate. As the U.S. looks to reduce its staggering debt, lawmakers need to take on the difficult task of examining agencies and programs for opportunities to make changes. FEMA, of course, has been plagued by waste in the past – federal reports in 2009 and 2011 criticized the agency for its handling of disaster contracts and improper disaster payments. A nonpartisan Government Accountability Office report also found that recent presidents have been far quicker to declare federal disasters, jeopardizing funds for communities truly in need.

It’s worth noting, however, that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, praised Obama and FEMA on Tuesday for their response to the storm. During a crisis, Christie said, he “couldn’t care less about presidential politics.” It was a welcome display of perspective, a reminder of how Democrats and Republicans can work together. But as Sandy showed us this week, it too often takes a crisis to make that happen.

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