BARACK Obama is the face of federalized disaster recovery. He swooped into areas affected by Hurricane Sandy in October, looking and sounding presidential.
Now that the face of recovery is turned away from the New Jersey cliffsides and toward the fiscal cliff, who's in charge of post-Sandy relief? The Federal Emergency Management Agency, of course, and FEMA is doing its level best to do what it always does, which is pretend it's not a bureaucracy mired in red tape and incapable of taming the federal regulatory behemoth.
Rather than being the face of recovery, FEMA employees bring up the rear. They work for months after a disaster, helping pick up the pieces of shattered lives and the debris left by storms. They can never work fast enough to satisfy some victims, and they can never escape the responsibility of doing things in a way that doesn't expose taxpayers to fraud.
Politicians can get the glory for disaster recovery (Obama) or become the goat (George W. Bush, after Hurricane Katrina). To the average FEMA employee (we wrote in April following a tornado outbreak here), “goes the grudging duty of actually providing assistance and doing it by the book, within budget and subject to political mismanagement or micromanagement.”
More than six weeks after the storm, many Sandy victims have no assurance of when their lives will return to some normalcy. The much-maligned “FEMA trailers” stand ready to provide shelter through the winter. Some New Jersey residents would like to park a trailer next to their damaged homes while they're being rebuilt. No can do, says FEMA: Federal rules prohibit the trailers from being placed in areas designated as flood zones.
This is trailer park trash talk, but don't blame FEMA operatives. Rules are rules. Not even Hurricane Sandy can dislodge bureaucratic intransigence. Common sense dictates that the rules be bent in this case. Where's Obama? He's moved on. But rest assured he'll be on camera when the next FEMA team moves in following a disaster, perhaps one of the many that affect Oklahoma.
FEMA will let its trailers be placed in distant trailer parks, but not next to damaged homes. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he wants no part of mobile homes, no matter where they're placed. “We don't need FEMA trailers,” he said. “We are focusing on getting people back in their homes.”
Victims are focused on getting back in their homes as well. It's cold outside. It's the holiday season. Wouldn't a temporary trailer be preferable to living with relatives or at a shelter, even if it means bending the rules? Maybe Bloomberg needs to sweeten his attitude with a soft drink exceeding 16 ounces. Nope. Those aren't welcome in Gotham either.
Perhaps FEMA ice for the sodas would be. At least it wouldn't go to waste the way it did a few years when the agency spent nearly $70 million to buy and store ice and then $3 million to dispose of it. The $73 million ice escapades puts an opaque glaze on the clear picture of relief promised by Obama a few days before the election.
Hours before the storm, the president said, “We're going to cut through red tape. We're not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules.” In a postelection visit to the region, Obama said, “We're going to have to put some of the turf battles aside ...”
How about putting some trailers on the turf, Mr. President, rather than getting bogged down with rules?