The politics of natural disasters

So, apparently Friday is a challenging day for me to blog. I’ll just write twice today and that’ll make it all better, right? Right?!

The eastern seaboard is nowhere close to recovered from hurricane Sandy, but knowing our great country as I do, I suspect we’re close to done hearing about it. We lack the attention span for any one disaster, and the looming disaster of the election will take all the attention we can muster.

But before we switch focuses, I want to point out one thing. I think this is sort of the thread that ties all the controversy around Sandy together, which will probably go down in history as the second most politicised natural disaster in our history thus far. Beyond Romney buying cans of food to give to supporters to give back to him for a photo op despite the Red Cross telling him not to do any of that, and regardless of all the great press Obama has gotten from palling around with Chris Christie, there is a more theoretical criticism floating around that I want to address.

That criticism is: “This is not the time for politics.” Some people are writing and saying that we should put aside politics and help the victims, and that times of disaster are when we need to stop worrying about politics.

Since I’m a day late on this blog post and I’m anxious to start my Saturday by playing Guild Wars 2, I’m not going to dress this up. I disagree, and here’s why:

A disaster which affects millions of people across multiple of These United States is exactly why politics are important. Politics is how a government works, how it moves forward, and how it gets things done. It does these things because that is what it’s responsible for. Governments are formed once a society reaches a certain size because there is no other way to manage the infrastructure and laws necessary for a working civilization, and because the people recognize that, to some extent, they need protection from each other. The only thing to prevent me stealing your food and water during a disaster is 1) the fear that someone will take that as license to steal my food and water, and 2) the government telling me not to and backing that up with punishments. And the only thing big enough to bring in food and water for millions of people without ripping them off is a government that has no for-profit motive.

Do any of you recall that hurricane that hit Florida in the late 90s or early 2000s? I can’t recall its name, but their names start to lose meaning after a while anyways. Before the storm, lumber prices shot through the roof, which meant people couldn’t afford to buy the materials they needed to reinforce their homes. Afterwards, lumber and water became even more expensive. It sparked national controversy and investigations that eventually resulted in companies being fined for price gouging. Those fines didn’t help the people who lost their homes or lives as a result of the problem though.

This is what happens when we leave disaster relief to the free market. The free market lacks a conscience, and it doesn’t care what happens so long as it gets its money. The wealthy will pay, and the poor couldn’t have afforded to pay anyways, so who cares about them?

Mitt Romney said he would cut FEMA and disaster relief programs. He thinks it should be left to the states, who lack the resources to deal with it on their own without a higher level of politician to guide multi-state efforts, and to private companies, for which we have ample evidence that the result will be price gouging and our citizens being hurt even worse.

Following that hurricane I mentioned, with the price gouging in Florida, I was traveling to Chicago for a Model UN conference, driving a vehicle with two other members of the squad as passengers. One was a Russian immigrant, staunch Republican, and devout Christian. The other was a homosexual atheist hardcore Democrat. You couldn’t have asked for a wider disparity in two people.

And here was the part of the two-hour debate that has stuck with me: the Republican Christian advocated on the side of the free market, saying that private companies should deal with disaster relief and that everything would be fine and balance out in the end. The Democrat atheist was flabbergasted and stated that, as humans and citizens of the USA, we have a moral imperative to help people in need, and that the price gouging and water shortages indicated that private companies were more greedy than moral.

I hate to bring out what has become a cliche, but what would Jesus do? My atheist friend seemed to have it right: go and help people, now! In comparison, the current GOP thinks that Obama moved too fast to react and start helping people. I guess the politicians were supposed to ignore their sworn duties to the state and let more people die before calling it a “disaster.”

This is why politics is important during a time of natural disaster. We have a moral imperative to help our friends, neighbours, and countrymen. We need to move lots of supplies quickly, and no private company or single state has the infrastructure and means to mobilize both the people and the materials necessary.

And the last 12 years, during which we’ve had an impressive amount of disasters, has shown one thing pretty conclusively: the GOP doesn’t think they should do their political duties during or in response to a disaster, and the Democratic party does. I’m not talking about individuals here, because Chris Christie, a Republican governor, has been doing great work. And per my last post, I’m not talking about Republicans in general. I’m talking about the GOP, which prioritizes photo ops over relief aid.

Who has the moral majority now?

One thought on “The politics of natural disasters

  1. “The only thing to prevent me stealing your food and water during a disaster is 1) the fear that someone will take that as license to steal my food and water, and 2) the government telling me not to and backing that up with punishments.”

    There is also 3) Your trust in the government to come to your aid before you have to resort to stealing.
    That trust is still on thin ice since the mis-management of the Katrina disaster relief effort is still fresh on people’s minds. They handled Irene well last year. So far it seems like they are handling Sandy appropriately. Hopefully this will continue to build good will between FEMA and the citizenship.

    I believe in state’s rights. but I also believe that the national government is a source of good and I know for a fact that it has benefited me personally. There are certain things worth doing en masse. National defense, transportation, health care, disaster relief, education, adjudication… these are the causes that I happily contribute my tax dollars too.


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