Hindering Hurricane Aid - Help Week


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUB.

Despite the devastation Hurricane Sandy caused when she struck the Northeast in late October 2012, it took three long months for a relief package to finally pass through both the Senate and House and be signed by President Obama. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut originally requested $82 billion, but the final aid awarded ended up being $50.5 billion.

The vote in the House regarding the bill was initially scheduled for New Year’s Day, but House Speaker John Boehner canceled this decision date due to the fiscal cliff. Many conservative politicians opposed the bill citing the growing national debt. Their reasoning and the recess outraged New Jersey’s Republican Governor, Chris Christie, who publicly criticized members of his own party for this delay, particularly John Boehner, arguing the relief package is not a “Republican or Democrat issue.”

The Sandy relief bill came about 91 days later. The President scolded lawmakers for their lagging, and Christie was appalled that the northeastern storm victims were left waiting far longer than the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The lengthy gap of time to pass this relief bill far surpassed any other modern case between a major American hurricane and the execution of its consequent relief bill. In 2005, the Hurricane Katrina relief bill went through only ten days after the storm hit the Gulf Coast. Going even further back, when Hurricane Andrew struck the South in 1992, it took 31 days for the relief bill to pass through the Federal Government; while the relief package for Hurricane Gustav took 29 days and Ike only 17, both these bills were passed on the same day in 2008.

So why did the Sandy bill take so long to pass?

One reason is the issue of extraneous “pork-barrel” spending. Some components of this bill considered to fall into this category include $2 million to improve rooftops on museums in Washington DC, $150 million for fisheries that could be appropriated to locations far away from affected areas, $50 million for tree-planting subsidies on private properties, $12.9 billion for future disaster studies and prevention activities, and $336 million for Amtrak. A handful of politicians also argued against money being directed at Head Start, an educational program, and increases in FBI salaries.

Though the Katrina relief bill passed far more quickly than the Sandy one, after the funds were released, some issues of corruption were revealed in the subsequent spending of both relief aid packages. There were cases of women using their $2,000 FEMA disaster relief debit cards to make purchases at the Louis Vuitton store, and government bureaucrats buying things like expensive laptops and sporting goods. Supposedly, some of this aid even went to fund a sex-change operation.

Regardless of whether all of the Hurricane Katrina money went to the right place, northeastern lawmakers were upset by the fact that so many politicians voted in favor of the Katrina bill, but then voted against Sandy. Some also considered it quite hypocritical for the 31 Republican Senators to vote against this bill, as they had, at some point or another, requested federal aid for emergency situations in their own states. Northeastern lawmakers who had voted in favor of the Katrina bill also criticized Southern lawmakers who voted against the Sandy bill.

Jason Klindt, a spokesman on behalf of Missouri Republican Sam Graves (who voted in favor of the Katrina bill and opposed the one for Sandy) reasoned that “The difference was the fiscal state of the country,” in which the government can no longer “buy now and pay later.”

Backtracking to 2005, the economy was doing “quite well” at the time Hurricane Katrina hit, according to Janet L. Yellen, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s presentation to the California Chamber of Commerce. However, in terms of Hurricane Andrew, President Bill Clinton had campaigned that same year against “the Bush recession,” which helped him win the election. In 2008, Gustav and Ike struck the U.S. at another period of recession, in which there was widespread unemployment, along with decreasing incomes, stock values, and home values.

Regardless of economics and politics, there are, at the moment, many places in the northeast struck by Hurricane Sandy that still need to be managed. On the official website for the State of New Jersey, the current homepage still posts links to the “Hurricane Sandy Information Center,” and organizations like Occupy Sandy are still running volunteer programs for New York and New Jersey, organizing efforts for tasks like mucking out houses and preparing food. As the bill is passed and there is no going back, hopefully the money that is now being distributed will be handled effectively towards restoring affected communities.

It is unlikely that Hurricane Sandy will be the last brutally destructive regional disaster that the greater United States will have to face. How efficiently the next disaster relief bill will be put together is difficult to determine, as is the future state of the economy during this hypothetical catastrophe. As the Sandy relief bill has recently passed, hopefully the billions of taxpayer dollars will be appropriated correctly, devastated areas can be rehabilitated, and, perhaps even work as a model for any future bills.