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In our opinion: Politicizing a disaster like superstorm Sandy borders on obscene

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 2:19 p.m. MDT

Kim Johnson looks over the destruction near her seaside apartment in Atlantic City, N.J., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (Seth Wenig) Kim Johnson looks over the destruction near her seaside apartment in Atlantic City, N.J., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (Seth Wenig)

A major natural disaster on the scale of hurricane Sandy requires immediate aid from a variety of sources and captures the attention of a nation famous for its charity and compassionate giving. An important presidential election may be one week away, but politics is put aside as people rally to the cause of rescuing millions who are in need.

Well, it has been put aside by many people, not all.

We are dismayed by the few pundits and editorial writers who have tried to use the tragedy to score political points. Most prominent among these is the New York Times, whose lead editorial Tuesday said, "A big storm requires big government." The editorial went on to criticize GOP candidate Mitt Romney for supposedly wanting to abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a charge his campaign has denied. It drew strange connections between Romney, budget cuts to FEMA and mistakes made in handling Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"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," the editorial said, pulling absurd statements out of thin air without a thread of substantiation or attribution.

In fact, the piece mischaraterized the role of FEMA while implying that big government's role in disaster relief should be expanded.

The truth is FEMA performs its role well precisely because it recognizes the supremacy of local and private aid providers. As Ed O'Keefe of the Washington Post wrote in a blog that also politicized the hurricane, the first responders to disasters are local and state officials, who then request aid from Washington for money and supplies as needed. When a major storm is forecast, governors often request federal help in advance so FEMA can assess needs as they develop. FEMA's Katrina response was a failure of leadership, not resources, and the cuts to FEMA over the last two years have not hindered its ability to respond when local leaders have asked.

But disaster relief is most effective at its most personal level, and that ranges from local police and fire departments to neighbors who look after one another and churches and schools that provide shelters and administer food, blankets and other relief supplies. We have seen that type of disaster response often here in Utah, when floods, high winds and other problems have prompted impressive responses from churches and local governments. Armies of volunteers are mobilized at a moment's notice. People put aside their own concerns and come running. In addition, the help provided around the world by the Red Cross and Catholic Charities cannot adequately be measured in dollars.

A larger federal role would threaten to clumsily push those efforts out of the way.

Yes, federal aid is much appreciated where it can make up for local needs. Unfortunately, runaway federal spending on entitlements threatens to hamstring the nation's ability to respond to disasters as deficits grow and the ability to borrow is compromised.

There is a time and place, however, for legitimately debating the balance of private, local and federal disaster response, as well as budgetary matters. A day in which many people on the East Coast are underwater, without power and homeless is not such a time. Using hurricane Sandy for political opportunism borders on the obscene.

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