Gov Career

By Phil Piemonte

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Hurricane Sandy and the case for smaller government

Time for a quick personal story.

Last week, amid an hours-old power outage during the middle of Hurricane Sandy’s trip through the Washington, D.C. area, something possessed me to grab a flashlight and go up into our walk-up attic.

Everything seemed fine until I heard a sudden clattering, and in the flashlight beam spotted a storm window that had blown nearly loose, and which was now askew, held by a single screw. It was within minutes of being ripped loose by the next 60 m.p.h. gust and sent three floors to the ground below.

The power already was out, and I ran back down two flights, grabbed some picture hanger wire from a drawer, and ran back up, this time with my son and another flashlight, and attempted to somehow use the wire to refasten one corner of the storm window. My son shook his head. We both knew it wouldn’t work. I enlisted him to hold the window in place while I ran downstairs to the workbench to investigate other options.

As I reached the bottom of the third flight of stairs to get to the basement, I had a flash of inspiration. There on a table at the bottom of the stairs was the charger cradle for my cordless drill. A power pack was in it, and the charger had been plugged in. Within a minute or so, I found the drill itself, a few long deck screws and, as luck would have it, a brand-new metal-cutting drill bit, still in its shrink wrap.

Long story short, back in the attic, while my son held the window, I drilled some holes through the aluminum storm window and then sunk a few deck screws through it to secure it to the wooden window frame. Sloppy and crooked, but effective.

Moral: When you really, really need a cordless drill, a metal-cutting drill bit and some deck screws, nothing else will do.

It felt good. Without even knowing it, I had been prepared. I had had the right resources available.

Which brings us to the federal government. And those who would shrink, reduce, cut or otherwise hack away at it for a variety of reasons, sometimes simply in the name of “smaller government.”

No government organization is perfect, of course. Waste, redundancy and outdated structures and policies do exist. All the same, the members of the administration and Congress that result from this election—whatever their party—might be wise to pause for a few moments as they make their budget decisions, and take the time to contemplate the role the federal government plays when no state or local authority has the depth, breadth or reach to tackle a really big emergent problem.

Because when you really need something, you really need it. Like in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The consequences of this storm are huge. President Obama declared disasters in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. In all, a dozen states declared emergencies.

The fact is that some situations—and this is one of them—require a whole lot of federal muscle, and the ability to quickly muster and coordinate resources on a national scale.

And we’re not just talking about the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose job it is to prepare for and respond to things like this. FEMA can’t respond to emergencies without a lot of other federal departments and agencies pitching in.

That’s not to sell FEMA short. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, almost 5,000 FEMA personnel have been supporting response operations that include everything from search and rescue to communications to logistical support.

FEMA has opened a dozen Disaster Recovery Centers across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut—and is opening more—to offer assistance to the victims. FEMA also activated its Transitional Sheltering Assistance program in New Jersey and New York.

But still, FEMA is sort of like a plant manager, a fellow who might do what he does very well, but who won’t get past the blueprints without all those folks out on the factory floor.

FEMA coordinates, and much of what it coordinates is federal. It’s hard to find a federal department or agency that is not involved in some way in the hurricane recovery efforts—in addition to executing their normal activities and duties.

Take a look at some federal activities FEMA has reported:

The Small Business Administration immediately began opening Business Recovery Centers in affected areas of New Jersey and New York to help business owners get disaster assistance for losses caused by the hurricane.

FEMA also is working with the Federal Transit Administration and the General Services Administration to get up to 350 buses to help New Jersey commuters get to Manhattan and the surrounding area.

A team from the Energy Department is working with state and local officials to identify gas stations that need emergency generators to restore power or that are running out of fuel.

The Defense Department is a big player in the recovery effort. The Defense Logistics Agency, for example, is working to provide fuel to the most affected impacted areas in coordination with state and local authorities. And as of Sunday, FEMA, the Defense Department and partners had transferred more than 4.8 million liters of water and more than 2.4 million meals to states.

Military services also are supporting the Coast Guard, which is directing vessel movement in the Port of New York and New Jersey to speed delivery of fuel and other commodities. A Navy training ship is being used in New York to house and feed responders.

The U.S. Transportation Command already has delivered 61 power restoration vehicles and 65 technical personnel from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to New York’s Stewart Air National Guard Base, and as of this weekend was working on transferring another 63 power restoration vehicles and 132 technical personnel from Phoenix.

And the Army Corps of Engineers is working to clear out flood waters. It has installed 67 generators, and is pumping or completed pumping operations in locations throughout New York City.

Fuel is a big deal in about every respect. The Department of Energy lent DOD ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel from the Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve that the Defense Logistics Agency is distributing to federal, state and local and responders in New Jersey York and New York for emergency equipment, generators, water pumps and vehicles. DLA is providing 200,000 gallons of fuel per day, and has bought 12 million gallons of gas and 12 million gallons of diesel to bolster supplies.

Federal agencies are aiding in providing victims with shelter and healthcare. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is working with FEMA and the states to find housing providers who may have available housing units.  The Department of Health and Human Services'  Administration for Children and Families is deploying a team to support child care and Head Start recovery efforts in New York City.

More than 850 HHS personnel are providing public health and medical assistance in New York and New Jersey. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established a Federal Medical Station in Middlesex, N.J., staffed by medical providers from the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the National Disaster Medical System. FEMA also provided 350 ambulances to New York.

And there are federal volunteers. The Corporation for National and Community Service sent 924 national service members from AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and FEMA Corps to seven states.

On top of all this, a number of agencies have used their emergency authority to clear away red tape that might hinder recovery. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, temporarily waived federal clean diesel fuel requirements in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and in and around New York City to allow the use of home heating oil in vehicles and equipment.

Other agencies, including the IRS, have suspended certain regulations, taxes and other bureaucratic obstacles to make it easier for responders to provide transportation, fuel, housing and so on without bumping up against red tape. Many federal agencies have released emergency grants and relief funds as well.

So—the observation is this: Before they start taking aim at federal agencies, the lawmakers left standing in the wake of this election should take a hard look around at those left standing in the wake of Sandy.

As those caught in this particular hurricane found out, you may not appear to need a stocked pantry, a full tank of gas and extra “D” batteries today, but when you need them, nothing else will do.


Posted by Phil Piemonte on Nov 06, 2012 at 4:02 PM

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