The last Monday in October and there’s no massive hurricane that morphed into a nine-hundred-mile-wide winter cyclone here in Southern California – just another day of full sunshine, in the mid-eighties with palm trees and all that. We’re the ones who get earthquakes, big ones, but not very often. Back in Manhattan there’s three feet of standing water on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, salt water, but that rumor turned out to be false, and the subway tubes are flooding and cars are floating down the streets, and across the street from Carnegie Hall there’s that crane that broke loose ninety floors up on a fancy new high-rise, swinging around in the hurricane-force winds. If it breaks loose and falls straight down it’ll land in the lobby of the Russian Tea Room, but the wind could carry it into the Meridian Hotel next door, or onto the roof of the Essex House a block north at the park, or a few blocks east down Fifty-seventh to Tiffany’s. Or the few remaining cables could hold. No one knows. They evacuated the area.
The whole city is a mess. Lower Manhattan is basically underwater and Con-Ed just gave up. They cut almost all power from Thirty-Fourth or so down through Battery Park – nothing will short out if it’s all turned off after all. So from the Empire State Building south it’s dark – the Village, West Village, the Lower East Side. On the East Side the FDR is flooded too, from the UN building all the way up to Yonkers. Across the East River, Queens and Brooklyn are a mess – but you can’t get there because they closed all the bridges. Across the Hudson, to the west, New Jersey is an even bigger mess, from Newark down to Cape May. That’s where the storm made land. Now everything is flooded and no one has power.
It was odd to watch it all from out here. It was like watching those planes fly into the World Trade Center that September morning all those years ago, watching from a distance, from the other side of the continent. Nothing like that had ever happened before, even if it happened back east, but it was like watching something happening in another world. It wasn’t immediate and personal – it was on television – and it was easy enough to manage that cold eye of objectivity and think about what was really going on. This would change things. There would be war, only the kind of war we waged would be the question. Those standing in the rubble wanted war now, no questions asked – but who to wage war against was the tricky question. Unfortunately, invading and occupying and spending ten years sort of rebuilding Iraq wasn’t the answer. It’s just what we did, because unprecedented events can elicit a whole lot of dumb-ass reactions. Something must be done. Doing something is the right thing to do. It’s just that you can’t say that because you actually did something it was therefore the right thing – simply because it was, after all, something. Syllogisms are tricky.
Hurricane Sandy has done this again – another unprecedented event in Manhattan, the entire city shut down for two days – no subways and no busses and for many no power and the financial markets closed for two days too of course. No one had ever seen a tropical storm like this, so late in the season and so big and so far north, and one that met the cold systems coming down out of Canada and turned itself into something else entirely, the largest winter kind of storm on record, dumping three or four feet of snow in West Virginia as the East Coast from the Carolinas to Maine flooded from the storm surge and screaming winds, all at the same time. Something was up. This might not mean war, but it might mean something else, and Bill McKibben in on the case:
Sandy, the hurricane that appears set to pummel the East Coast, promises a historic potential for damage and a terrifying look at what may be in store for us in a post-climate change world – ever more frequent assaults of not-so-natural origin.
This is the new world:
I begin to sense what the future may be like, as more and more of the world finds itself facing ever-more-frequent assaults from the amped-up forces of the not-so-natural world. You can’t, as the climate-change deniers love to say, blame any particular hurricane on global warming. They’re born, as they always have been, when a tropical wave launches off the African coast and heads out into the open ocean. But when that ocean is hot – and at the moment sea surface temperatures off the Northeast are five degrees higher than normal – a storm like Sandy can lurch north longer and stronger, drawing huge quantities of moisture into its clouds, and then dumping them ashore.
That’s the world we live in now:
James Hansen, the NASA climatologist, published a paper earlier this year showing how the seemingly small one degree we’ve already warmed the earth has made extreme weather far more likely. The insurance industry has published a series of warnings in recent years saying the same thing. The world grows steadily more unpredictable, and hence we grow less comfortable in it.
You see the same thing on much smaller scales. In Vermont this fall we had our first deaths ever from Eastern equine encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease that the experts had predicted would come with a warming climate. They were right, and now when you go out to weed the garden, the dusk carries with it a slight whiff of apprehension it never did before.
Our relationship to the world around us is shifting as fast as that world is shifting.
Perhaps we should discount Bill McKibben, the founder of the climate change activism group 350.org and the author of Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet – but we didn’t dismiss the guys who brought down the World Trade Center towers and say that was something that just happened. At the New Yorker site, Elizabeth Kolbert doesn’t think we should dismiss the idea here, even if both parties do:
Coming as it is just a week before Election Day, Sandy makes the fact that climate change has been entirely ignored during this campaign seem all the more grotesque. In a year of record-breaking temperatures across the U.S., record drought conditions in the country’s corn belt, and now a record storm affecting the nation’s most populous cities, neither candidate found the issue to be worthy of discussion. Pressed about this finally the other day on MTV, President Obama called climate change a “critical issue” that he was “surprised” hadn’t come up during any of the debates, a response that was at once completely accurate and totally disingenuous.
He is the damned president after all. On the other hand, if you think about it, it’s hard to imagine Obama doing a George Bush at Ground Zero, this time with Obama standing in a spiffy military jacket in a flooded street in Manhattan, with a bullhorn, vowing this will never happen again and now, damn it, we will reduce our dependence on fossil fuel and reduce our carbon footprint. It’s just not the same sort of thing.
Other theories of why this happened should be noted too – Anti-Gay Preacher Blames Hurricane Sandy on Homosexuality and Same-Sex Marriage and Hurricane Sandy: Minister Blames Gays and ‘Pro-Homosexual’ Romney And Obama – and now that those theories have been noted we can move on. An awful thing happened back east and something must be done.
That’s where politics comes in. You might remember Mitt Romney in one of the 2012 Republican primary debates – CNN’s John King had just visited Joplin, Missouri, then dealing with the aftermath of that catastrophic tornado, and asked Mitt Romney about federal emergency management programs:
During a CNN debate at the height of the GOP primary, Mitt Romney was asked, in the context of the Joplin disaster and FEMA’s cash crunch, whether the agency should be shuttered so that states can individually take over responsibility for disaster response.
“Absolutely,” he said. “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. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”
“Including disaster relief, though?” debate moderator John King asked Romney.
“We cannot – we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney replied. “It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”
Of course that would come up right now. Everything lives forever on YouTube, and David Dayen points out the obvious:
Emergency management is a critical federal program, if for no other reason than because of budget constraints. If states were expected to assume the full costs of emergency management, because they are bound by balanced budget rules, the money would have to come out of education or health care or some other public service. But the federal government can generate funds for natural disasters, use its ultra-low borrowing costs, and provide them to states so they don’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul.
Dayen is not impressed:
The Romney campaign responded to Ryan Grim, who dug this up, by saying that “Gov. Romney wants to ensure states, which are the first responders and are in the best position to aid impacted individuals and communities, have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters.” But that requires a federal response, or else you have the death spiral I described, where emergency response must get paid for by taking money out of other areas of the state budget. That’s if Primary Romney doesn’t get his greatest wish, to privatize disaster response.
It’s hard to imagine for-profit private disaster relief – where corporations could make a ton of money handing out bottled water and blankets to those who have lost everything. Where would the profits come from? Perhaps Mitt has a fantastic business model no one else has thought of – or it’s just blather.
Dayen sees nonsense here:
The primaries have been forgotten except for the memes, but Romney was considered the most moderate and electable of those on the stage. And he routinely said things like this, that we should eliminate FEMA and either let the states handle things on their own, or privatize emergency management.
But he’s not sure Romney was kidding:
Even if you believe that primary Romney does not equal “the real Romney,” if such a life form can be found, his budget mandates simply have to lead to cuts to FEMA, through a cap on federal spending at 20% of GDP and a floor on defense spending at 4% of GDP. Romney has never exempted FEMA from the rest of the budget, so it would have to be part of the 34-53% cut to all non-defense programs, under his budget rules. And we’re in a period where we will, because of inattention to climate change, need to spend more on emergency management, not less.
Is this an issue? The Romney campaign hopes not – they are once more saying he never really said what you thought he said. And Kevin Drum says it’s worth remembering the context of all this:
This debate was held in June 2011, just a few weeks after the disastrous tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri. At the time, FEMA was close to running out of money and Republicans were busy holding the country hostage over extension of the debt ceiling. This meant that yes, FEMA funding really had become controversial. Democrats wanted to pass a supplemental spending bill to keep FEMA going, but on May 30, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor went on Face the Nation to say that he had conditions: there would be no money for Joplin unless something else was cut first.
This is what people forget:
“I know that America is just stunned by the scope of devastation and loss and the horrific tragedy that the people of Joplin and other places across the country really are experiencing this tornado season,” Cantor said. The federal government typically pays for disaster relief, but Cantor has said repeatedly that the government must maintain fiscal discipline. On Sunday, he compared the situation to that of a family putting off buying a new car when a family member became ill.
“When a family is struck with tragedy – like the family of Joplin … let’s say if they had $10,000 set aside to do something else with, to buy a new car … and then they were struck with a sick member of the family or something, and needed to take that money to apply it to that, that’s what they would do, because families don’t have unlimited money. And, really, neither does the federal government.”
Republican orthodoxy that demanded spending cuts in return for raising the debt ceiling had infested everything, even emergency spending. Sure, Joplin might be suffering, but by God, America was out of money and there was nothing left for them. Romney, who was still in his severely conservative phase back then, went along because he didn’t dare cross Eric Cantor.
This is the real problem here. There’s no telling if Romney really believed what he was saying or not, but as president he probably wouldn’t dare cross Cantor either.
That’s a dismal thought, and at the New Republic, Alec MacGillis offers this:
I would wager that there was something else behind Romney’s answer: his embrace of glib federalism, specifically as a solution to his great Obamacare conundrum. Remember, just a few weeks prior to that debate, Romney had given a big speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan that was intended to resolve what at the time seemed like his greatest obstacle to the Republican nomination, his having signed the Massachusetts universal health care law that was the model for the Affordable Care Act. In that speech, Romney made clear that he would wrangle his way around this not by disowning the Massachusetts law, but by simply declaring that it should be up to states, not the federal government, to decide how to cover their uninsured: “Our plan was a state solution to a state problem. And President Obama’s is a power grab by the federal government to put in place a one size fits all plan across the nation.”
Yes, they’re still the same thing, and good for everyone, but… but what? MacGillis tries to work it out:
There were all sorts of problems with this distinction, including the fact that Massachusetts would not have been able to carry out its universal program without considerable help from the federal government. But the biggest flaw with the “let the states address the problem” approach is, quite simply, that many states don’t really see their uninsured as a problem. The political leadership in much of the country, especially but not only in the South, has again and again opted against expanding health coverage, notably by refusing to raise income eligibility thresholds for Medicaid coverage (in Texas, Virginia and many other states, an adult earning as little as $10,000 per year is considered too well-off to qualify.) This… is a big reason why we do social legislation such as Medicare and Social Security and the Affordable Care Act on a nationwide basis: to assure a basic level of security even for people in states where there would otherwise be very little effort made to fill the gap.
We may need a federal government after all:
Romney of course knows this – it’s why he was, at various points before health care became a toxic issue, suggesting the law he signed as a model for a nationwide solution. And he surely knows why we have a national FEMA, and why leaving disaster relief to the states would mean a patchwork quilt that might be fine for wealthy, well-governed states such as Massachusetts but deeply inadequate in poor, disaster-prone states such as Louisiana or Mississippi (not to mention that all states are fundamentally ill-suited for disaster relief because they, unlike the feds, must balance their budgets every year and so cannot borrow big-time to pay for a disastrous patch.)
But to make himself fit for the Republican Party in 2012, Romney figured he’d cast his Massachusetts moderation in the guise of federalism.
That worked for him. He became the nominee – but it may not be working now. On the other hand there was Republican strategist Ron Bonjean on CNN as the whole East Coast was going under, who decided to say this:
I have to say that I don’t think anyone, most people don’t have a positive impression of FEMA, and I think Mitt Romney is right on the button. I don’t think anybody cares about that right now.
This might have been bad timing, but ideology is often a tad rigid at just the wrong moment, and meanwhile, back in the big city, the New York Times editorial board is having none of this:
It’s an absurd notion, but it’s fully in line with decades of Republican resistance to federal emergency planning. FEMA, created by President Jimmy Carter, was elevated to cabinet rank in the Bill Clinton administration, but was then demoted by President George W. Bush, who neglected it, subsumed it into the Department of Homeland Security, and placed it in the control of political hacks. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina was just waiting to happen.
The agency was put back in working order by President Obama, but ideology still blinds Republicans to its value.
Many don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions, which this week includes living on the East Coast.
There may be something to that last seemingly cheap shot. Insofar as the Republican Party, since the days of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, has become the party of the South, or at least the Deep South or maybe the Old South – and now may be the Confederacy itself reconstituted – and also fancies itself the party of the Heartland – the fly-over states in the middle with the small towns and good folks – or for a short time the party of the Alaskan tundra – they have no use for the East Coast folks. They aren’t Real Americans after all, as Sarah Palin was forever saying. Of course all Republicans also feel the same way about the folks out here on the other coast, especially those of us who live right in the middle of Hollywood. Some people don’t deserve help in hard times, and thus the issue is larger than FEMA.
Actually the issue is larger than FEMA. People do need specific help now, and FEMA can provide that – but we’ve had another unprecedented disaster in Manhattan. Get everyone to a warm and dry place, get them fed and rested, restore services and repair the damage everywhere – and then step back and think about this. This never happened before, and maybe it does mean war, of sorts. What may be in store for us in a post-climate change world isn’t pretty, but we do need to deal with it.