It could take years for many East Coast residents to rebuild their lives in the wake of the monster storm that killed dozens of people and destroyed tens of billions of dollars in public and private property, from roads, bridges and rail lines to businesses and homes. Superstorm Sandy is still wreaking havoc in the Northeast with its heavy winds and rain. But it is another wakeup call for Washington that a national catastrophe fund would benefit all regions, not just Florida and other gulf states. Some natural disasters are just too big for states and the private insurance market to handle.
Sandy roared ashore onto the New Jersey coastline Monday night with 80 mph winds. The storm surge and massive flooding sent walls of water into lower Manhattan, drenching subway stations and underground parking, shutting down the financial district and paralyzing the nation's busiest metropolitan area for the second straight day. More than 8 million customers were without power Tuesday across 15 states; 15,000 flights were cancelled and some 11,000 people were in Red Cross shelters. Hundreds of emergency response crews from Florida and elsewhere were on the job Tuesday working to restore power and other utility services across the Northeast.
While President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney put the campaign aside for a day and focused attention on the relief effort, the storm has highlighted the two different roles the candidates see for the federal government in any civil emergency. Obama oversaw a vigorous federal response to the evolving disaster that received initial praise from local Democrats and Republicans. But Romney suggested in a primary debate last year that individual states should take on more of the federal job in handling disaster relief — and if you go further "and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."
This is a dangerous line of thinking only a few years after George W. Bush's administration bungled the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. If Sandy or last year's extreme weather in the Midwest showed anything, it is the need for strong, centralized leadership in handling weather-related crises that do not occur neatly along geographic lines. Under Craig Fugate, the former Florida disaster chief, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has rebuilt its response capacity, strengthened ties with state and local agencies and improved the lines of communication between public and private groups. Only the federal government has the ability to play this role.
The next step in building on the wisdom of a coordinated response is to create a national catastrophe fund to help regions devastated by natural disasters pick up the pieces. Florida has shown leadership on this issue before, which makes sense, given its vulnerability to hurricanes. But extreme weather across the nation in recent years demonstrates that tropical weather is only one of many dangers facing an entire swath of the country. Damage from Sandy will trickle down to all corners of the nation. If the concept of we're all in this together makes sense for disaster preparation, then it makes sense for planning the recovery as well.