Jack Kelly: Disaster relief shouldn't be political

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When property damage, lost business, and the extra expenses of families who have to live in hotels are added up, Hurricane Sandy is expected to cost between $30 billion and $50 billion. That would make it the second most expensive storm in history, after Katrina, which cost $108 billion.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinates U.S. disaster relief efforts with state and local governments, and private charities such as the Red Cross.

In Sandy's immediate aftermath, politicians pronounced themselves well pleased with the government's response.

"The administration, the president, himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said last Tuesday. "We have a great partnership with them."

"I've never in all my experience seen as much cooperation and acknowledgement of that cooperation from city, state and federal levels, so it's working like it's supposed to and I'm really proud of our team," said Vice President Joe Biden.

That opinion isn't shared in many hard hit communities.

Brooklyn businessman Harry Siegel was part of a group of volunteers that took privately donated supplies to Staten Island Sunday.

"We had only two FEMA sightings over the day while driving over much of the island -- a phone number for them written in marker on the back of an OEM trailer at Midland, and eight people wearing FEMA Corps light blue jackets huddled outside a Hess Express, seeming oblivious to or disinterested in the huge line of cars on the road beside them," he said.

FEMA isn't supposed to be a first responder. Most of the help it provides -- loans to businesses to help them rebuild and housing assistance to families -- is delivered well after the disaster.

FEMA is supposed to preposition supplies so they can be rushed to people in need.

• Since hurricanes foul water supplies, the most urgent need is for bottled water. FEMA had vast supplies of it in its warehouse in Atlanta, but virtually none at its "advanced staging location" at the Naval air station in Lakehurst, N.J. All that staved off disaster was a donation of half a million bottles from Nestle's America.

The first FEMA supplies didn't arrive in New York City until Thursday afternoon.

• Before Sandy struck, administrator Fugate said FEMA had 400 industrial-size generators ready to supply power to critical facilities. As of Friday, only a handful were up and running.

• Sandy knocked out two refineries and a pipeline, triggering the massive gasoline shortage. FEMA dispatched 24 million gallons of fuel to New York and New Jersey, but distribution of it was botched.

Politicians tend to lose interest in relief operations once the photo op is over. Shamefully, that's true this time for most in the "mainstream" media as well.

But it isn't the help that's announced that matters. It's the help that's actually provided. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani -- who won universal praise for how he handled relief operations in the wake of 9/11 -- thinks FEMA's response to Sandy has been as poor as it was to Katrina.

Journalists played up the suffering of Katrina's victims because it was harmful to President George W. Bush. Sandy's victims have largely been forgotten because publicizing their plight could reflect poorly on President Barack Obama.

Disaster relief shouldn't be politicized. It's no more fair to hold President Obama personally responsible for FEMA's shortcomings this time than it was to hold President Bush responsible for FEMA's shortcomings after Katrina. What is important is that those shortcomings be fixed.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.


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