For Manhattan at least, last week was the weather week that wasn’t. But the minor earthquake and weakened Hurricane Irene served as reminders of the caprice of nature and—only a couple of weeks before the tenth anniversary of 9/11—the knowledge that at any given moment calamity literally is just around the corner.
Both also should serve as wake-up calls to those know-nothings and kleptocrats who reject the value of government and would like it rendered down to nothingness—the helpless infant that Eric Cantor, Grover Norquist and their pals wish to see drowned in the bathtub.
I’ve never been through a major earthquake, although I’ve experienced some minor tremors, the first early on a New Year’s Day in upstate New York while I was still a teenager. Just as you read about in animal behavior books, the dog, lying at the foot of my bed, apparently sensed something was up, jumped off and scurried out of the room mere seconds before the shaking began. Not a word of warning from her. So much for man’s best friend.
The 5.8 we had on the afternoon of August 23 was like an aftershock I experienced out in Burbank a number of years ago, while working in post-production on a documentary. It felt like a truck had hit the building. This time, there was a thump and I looked out the window to see if something heavy-duty was rolling down Seventh Avenue. Nothing—but the apartment kept wobbling up and down. Then another hard thump and more wobbling.
Hours later, just off the phone with my brother and sister in Washington, DC, who had been in a taxi and felt nothing, I noticed that several of the pictures on the walls were now hanging at peculiar angles. That was the extent of damage at my house.
As for Irene, I live in what the city has designated Evacuation Zone C, meaning we would be sent out of the neighborhood if a direct hit by a Category 3 or 4 storm—or maybe an asteroid—seemed imminent. That didn’t happen, but my girlfriend Pat was moved to a hotel in midtown because the television newsroom at which she works needed her close at hand. Graciously, she invited me along.
(Coincidentally, the hotel was the first at which I ever stayed in New York City alone, also during my teenage years. The student rate back then was $12 a night.)
Fearing high winds, in parts of the hotel they weren’t placing guests above the tenth floor. We had a small room, on the third floor away from the street, so little chance of windows blowing in, which was good, facing the airshaft, which was bad. One look out the window and we quickly drew the shades; it looked like the place where pigeons go to die—or at least throw their trash. Maybe the storm would give it a good wash.
It didn’t. Irene weakened as it reached Coney Island and we slept right through the main action, finally returning to my place early Sunday afternoon. Branches and leaves littered the streets and trees were down by a nearby playground. Plenty of rain and wind but nothing like the loss of life, power outages and billions worth of wind and flood damage inflicted outside the city. Beyond the media centers of New York and Washington, where reporters were quick to judge the storm “not so bad,” there was more than enough disaster to go around, bringing misery to millions.
I remembered Hurricane/Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972. It roared through central Virginia and Pennsylvania up into the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, creating more damage than any hurricane in the United States before it. (That time, Agnes hit DC with a vengeance—more than a foot of rain in parts of the area and 16 deaths as people were swept away in the floodwaters. I was there, and will never forget the usually placid Rock Creek roiling like Colorado River rapids. The Potomac overflowed into the C & O Canal, and a crowd of us stood in Georgetown watching the water slowly creep up lower Wisconsin Avenue.)
Fresh water from Agnes’ floods flushed into the saltwater of Chesapeake Bay, damaging the seafood industry there for years, and the damage inflicted on the tracks of already financially crippled railways in the Northeast helped lead to the creation of the federally funded Conrail freight system (later divided into CSX and the Norfolk Southern Railway).
Storms like Agnes and Irene are insidious, often striking slowly over time in ways that can be unpredictable and far more damaging than anticipated. Government preparedness and response are critical. There was no Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1972; in fact, like Conrail, its origins can be traced, in part, to the Agnes disaster. Jimmy Carter signed it into creation seven years later. Since then, FEMA has had noteworthy ups and downs, performing reasonably well when those who believe in the value of government are in power, suffering lamely when they’re not.
By all accounts, and at this writing, the White House, FEMA and other government agencies, including state and local, have acquitted themselves ably during the lead-up to Irene, the actual hurricane and its aftermath, although many remain in need. Eighteen FEMA teams were positioned along Irene’s path from Florida to Maine, spreading north as the storm proceeded toward New England, providing support, supplies and experienced advice all along the way.
As even The Washington Post’s resident smartass, Dana Milbank, had to admit, “Don’t expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right . . . a rare reminder that the federal government can still do great things, after all other possibilities have been exhausted.”
However, he continued, “Americans won’t have long to savor this new competence in government. NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has already been hit with budget cuts that will diminish its ability to track storms, and FEMA, like much of the federal government, will lose about a third of its funding over the next decade if Tea Party Republicans have their way . . .
“Tea Partyers who denounce Big Government seem to have an abstract notion that government spending means welfare programs and bloated bureaucracies. Almost certainly they aren’t thinking about hurricane tracking and pre-positioning of FEMA supplies. But if they succeed in paring the government, some of these Tea Partyers (particularly those on the coasts or on the tornadic plains) may be surprised to discover that they have turned a Hurricane Irene government back into a Katrina government.”
Cuts have been approved by the House Appropriations Committee to the program that sends “hurricane hunter” aircraft into storms to measure data crucial for hurricane forecasts. Weather satellites are on the chopping block, too. At a May press conference, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco warned, “The future funding for our satellite program is very much in limbo right now . . . We are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today.”
She noted that cutbacks had forced the agency to delay the launch of a much-needed satellite. As per NPR’s Jon Hamilton, “It would have traveled in a polar orbit, beaming down information for weather and climate forecasts. As a result, when the current satellite doing that job stops working, there will be no replacement.” It’s these polar orbiting satellites that also warn of deadly tornadoes and other severe weather conditions.
In the short term, the cost of Irene means diverting monies from the government’s Disaster Relief Fund, cash intended for tornado clean-up in Joplin, Missouri, and other towns. Congress will need to vote for more, probably billions more. And hurricane season isn’t even over yet. (As I write, New Orleans faces Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Katia lurks in the Atlantic.)
But even though his own Seventh Congressional District was damaged by Irene, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, our national scold, says no, not unless spending cuts are made elsewhere to offset the cost, dollar for dollar. (That includes earthquake damage, too, by the way, despite the fact that the epicenter of the August 23rd quake was in his Virginia district.)
“Just like any family would operate when it’s struck by disaster,” Cantor told Fox News, “it finds the money to take care of a sick loved one or what have you, and then goes without trying to buy a car or put an addition onto the house.” It’s more like “selling the family station wagon for spare parts,” the website Media Matters said, and a far cry from 2004 when Cantor came running to fellow Republicans George Bush and Tom Ridge for no-strings-attached federal disaster assistance after Tropical Storm Gaston hit home. Nor when Bush was president did Rep. Cantor ever scream for offsets when it came to tax breaks for the wealthy, waging war, or—surprise—raising the debt ceiling.
What he’s doing now is ornery, mean and just plain wrong—ideological purity overruling common sense. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, fresh off his pre-Irene “Get the hell off the beach” performance and no stranger himself to pigheadedness, declared, “We don’t have time to wait for folks in Congress to figure out how they want to offset this stuff with other budget cuts . . . I don’t want to hear about the fact that offsetting budget cuts have to come first before New Jersey citizens are taken care of.”
Approving emergency aid in a national crisis is not to be held over our heads like some vindictive ransom note. It’s neither penny wise nor pound foolish; it’s immoral and, yes, un-American. This is not the way we were raised, not the way we were taught to treat one another. We lend a hand and figure out the costs later.
Yet in a time of national crisis, whether in or out of hurricane season, Cantor continues to spout pettifoggery and right wing Republicans go along with him, mindlessly nodding in obeisant agreement like so many bobble head dolls, even as the economy burns, infrastructure crumbles, funds are slashed and untold millions suffer.
Heckuva job, Eric.
Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East and former senior writer at Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.