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Bessent: Sandy disaster shows need for a strong federal response

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks about Sandy in Washington (Oct. 28, 2012). Credit: Getty Images

Reality has a rude way of intruding on ideology.

Hurricane Sandy has left a multistate swath of destruction that in the New York City region alone will no doubt cost billions of dollars to clean up and repair. So while small government of limited means and responsibilities may sound good in ordinary times, extraordinary moments like this provide good reason to rethink whether that’s really best.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is apparently among those having second thoughts.

Asked in a Republican primary debate back in June if states should take on more of the disaster relief role currently played by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Romney said, “Absolutely. And 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.”

Asked specifically if that included disaster relief, Romney doubled down. “We cannot afford to do these things without jeopardizing the future of our kids.” Privatizing disaster relief would be even better, he added.

Then Sandy hit.

Monday the Romney campaign said he would not abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And while hedging that he still thinks states should take the lead in disaster relief, what he didn’t say is where they’d get the money.

When the federal government declared New York a disaster area Tuesday, it put the state and its residents in line for much-needed federal assistance. That includes rental payments for temporary housing, low-interest loans for home repairs and residential losses, and up to $2 million in loans for each small businesses. State and local governments, including Nassau and Suffolk counties, are eligible for federal money to remove debris and to mitigate hazardous conditions.

Without that aid, this week’s natural disaster would likely also become a fiscal disaster for cash-strapped businesses and local governments.

Last year’s Hurricane Irene cost the federal government $1.5 billion in addition to the $5.2 billion it spent in 2011 responding to other disasters.

Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed provided a lethal example of what can happen when Washington is missing in action during a disaster.

Stepping up to help people in need when tragedy strikes is what neighbors and communities and compassionate nations do. When tragedy swamps practically the entire Eastern Seaboard, muscular federal government isn’t an albatross. It’s a comfort.