With friends (actually members) like New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie, the Republican Party doesn’t need enemies. Christie’s been caterwauling and Congress-bashing ever since John Boehner and the House Republicans failed to bend to his will and immediately and unquestioningly meet his demand to fork over $50 billion in storm relief to New Jersey and New York in the wake of Sandy. That’s about $650 for every household in America, or $160 per person.
Sandy was no longer a hurricane when it made landfall on the northern New Jersey and southern Long Island shoreline. It was a powerful and destructive storm, but not the most powerful or most destructive to ever hit the area, not even in the last hundred years. The Long Island Express of 1938 caused more deaths in New York alone, and vastly more in the greater New England area. The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 had higher winds and lower pressure readings. The death toll from Sandy was roughly a hundred people, a little over half of those being New York/New Jersey residents.
In contrast, the tornadoes that ravaged the South (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky) in April of 2011 killed over 350 people, 238 in Alabama alone. It was the largest recorded outbreak of tornadoes in US history, surpassing even the famous 1974 outbreak. The storms leveled whole towns (e.g., Hackleburg in northwest/central Alabama), but in scattershot fashion. The four EF-5 and 11 EF-4 monsters spawned those two fateful days destroyed countless homes and businesses, sweeping away everything in their path wherever they touched down.
And how much federal assistance was provided in the wake of the April, 2011 carnage? According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, by October of 2011, about a billion dollars had either already been provided, or was in the works to be provided, for recovery from the storms. One billion dollars. Sandy’s governors, Christie and Cuomo, believe their storm recovery merits fifty times that.
I remember well the day the tornadoes hit in my area. It was about six in the evening when the sirens blared, warning of approaching storms. I turned on the news to find a local meteorologist tracking the storm—the one that had just decimated Tuscaloosa fifty miles to the southwest—right into my section of town in Birmingham. I knew the storm was a monster. I had seen monsters before. The 1977 EF-5 in Birmingham had tracked not half of a mile from my house. The 1998 EF-5 tracked even closer to where I was living than had the ’77 storm. Now the weatherman was telling me this one was heading straight toward me. I figured I’d been lucky enough up to now, but that everybody’s luck eventually runs out, so this one might be the one that gets me.
I sent the kids and the wife down to the basement, though anyone who’s seen what these monsters—the EF-5’s and 4’s—can do, knows a basement is no refuge. The illusion of safety might have helped calm their nerves, but that’s about all a basement is worth when an EF-5 comes calling. In the 1998 storm, a whole family was sucked from their basement hideout and killed as the storm completely destroyed their house, all the way down to the dirt it was built on. Maybe a bunker designed to withstand a nuclear strike would be safe in an EF-5, but anything less than that, and it’s just a matter of luck.
I got a beer from the basement fridge, and knowing, but not saying, how utterly futile hiding in the basement might be, headed back up to see what the skies looked like. The neighborhood where I now live has never been hit by an EF-5 or 4. I didn’t really believe, no matter what the weatherman claimed, that it would be hit this time. Monster tornadoes are not like lightning. They strike twice in the same place and then some, retracing familiar paths time and again. In all four of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham corridor, the storms took roughly the same track, so close that the differences in the tracks on the ground are only barely discernible when plotted on a map. No major storm has ever hit Homewood (the little suburban city where I live), and not just because it’s filled with rich white people (though some of them might argue otherwise). Red Mountain, the mountain ridge to the north of Homewood, which is the demarcation line between Birmingham proper and the ringlet of cities bordering it to the South and East, seems to act as a barrier, directing the monsters north. Meteorologists dispute the idea that geographical features impact storm formation and track, but the fact remains, no EF-4 or 5 has been observed south of the mountain in the hundred or so years of its recorded history, while several are known north of it. Monster storms hit neighborhoods in areas north and northwest of Birmingham’s city center, places like Forestdale (where I grew up, and watched the 1977 storm pass overhead without touching down in my neighborhood) and Maytown (just next to Sylvan Springs where the family died in their basement in 1998) and Edgewater (just Southeast of Maytown, hit by a monster in 1955) and Pratt City (which bore the brunt of the 2011 storm in Birmingham).
From my north-facing window in the kitchen, looking up a hillock just south of Red Mountain, I could see the back side of the storm as it churned by. I sipped at my beer while lightning cackled and sparked in the sky, jumping from cloud to cloud like some invention of Nikola Tesla gone horribly wrong. Wind that had been steadily blowing for the previous two days fell to an eerie calm just as the storm passed, barely enough to rustle the tender new foliage in the trees, reminding me of the storm in 1998 when not even our garbage cans had blown over, even as the detritus of other people’s destroyed homes littered the yard in its wake. In less than five minutes, the fury was spent and the skies cleared. I knew people had died, 38 in our area I later learned. I went outside and found the yard again littered with debris, including a book belonging to the Alberta City Elementary School Library. Alberta City Elementary is in Tuscaloosa, fifty miles away, which was completely destroyed by the storm. The only thing left of the book was its binding. I bought the school a new copy and sent it to them with the storm-battered one.
The next morning was a day like any other in my neighborhood (but was a wasteland, as if having been carpet-bombed by B-52’s, in the neighborhoods where the tornadoes hit). I got up and went out for my usual jog. As I passed a buddy’s house, I saw he was loading his truck with supplies and tools and a chain saw. I stopped to ask him what was up. I knew he’d been out of work awhile, laid off during the recession. He said that he was going to go see if he could help out with storm relief; he didn’t have a plan, he was just driving to where he knew the storms had hit, so he could try to help. It was far too early yet for the volunteer machinery to get in gear and get people oriented at tasks that would actually help, and not hinder, recovery efforts. But I knew he was smart and practical. He wouldn’t get in the way. He would just find some good to do, and do it.
Over the next weeks and months the people of the state and its communities pulled together as never before. Nobody stood on the rooftops proclaiming the disaster to be the federal government’s problem. Everybody just quietly got to work; clearing debris, providing food, clothing and shelter to folks who had lost everything but their lives, consoling the survivors. Secular or religious; white, black or brown, it didn’t matter. People helped each other survive, but didn’t expect that they deserved it. I know I often excoriate Alabama for her xenophobia (it is not as racist as it is xenophobic), but I have never been prouder to be from Alabama than I was in those months after the storms. It is an insular community. But the flip side of that insularity coin is that we take care of our own, and don’t expect help from outsiders.
The federal government declared about half the state to be a disaster area. And surely the money helped. Jefferson County, in which Birmingham is situated, probably staved off fiscal disaster with the money, at least for a while longer. But the state didn’t use the disaster to cajole the federal government into provisioning a bunch of unwarranted goodies its way. It gratefully took the money FEMA provided and used it to help rebuild. It got something less than the billion or so FEMA spent, but undoubtedly got a hefty share of it, as the state was hardest hit by the disaster. Alabama’s governor didn’t create a fanciful wish list of projects to fund which were only tangentially related to the disaster, if at all, and then go on national television to bash the Congress for refusing his demands.
I know that the regular folks in New Jersey and New York are every bit as good and helpful and self-reliant in the face of disaster as are the folks in Alabama and Tennessee and Mississippi. I know that in Sandy, and in 9-11, and in countless previous calamities, they have pulled together and pulled themselves out of the muck, not asking for or expecting help, but accepting it if offered.
But their politicians are a different matter. They are a bit more politically opportunistic, especially New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, who has twice now used the storm as a battering ram against his own political party, which, considering that Christie is nominally Republican in a heavily Democratic state, makes good political sense for him. He basically endorsed Obama just before the election through effusively praising Obama’s handling of the storm recovery efforts, even while there could not have been much at all that Obama’s federal government did in the short time after the storm to have earned the praise. And now, Christie has jumped on the bash-the-Republican-Congress bandwagon for not having rushed to decide that indeed New Jersey and New York deserve $50 billion, about $160 from every man, woman and child in America, to recover from the storm. (I wonder, have the private insurance markets completely abandoned New Jersey and New York?)
The political mantra of Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former Chief of Staff, was to never let a good crisis go to waste. Though Emanuel is now gone, the ideology remains suffused in everything the Obama Administration does, including not least, conjuring crises simply for the purpose of exploiting them (e.g., the so-called “fiscal cliff”). The federal government writ expands with every exploitable crisis, and with the federal government morphing into a gigantic insurer of first resort, insuring against every type of individual (unemployment, old age, health, disability, etc.) and collective (storms, floods, earthquakes, etc.) calamity, there are plenty of crises to exploit. The mantra should be adjusted to one of never letting a good victimization go to waste. Anywhere there are mass “victims” is a place the federal government can exploit to its advantage, relentlessly expanding its writ, which Governor Christie apparently understands quite well, and is more than willing to aid and abet, if it will score him points with his constituents.
Eventually the time will come when the federal government writ must cease expanding, overextended as it already is, though nothing in the recent budget deal reached at the edge of the fiscal cliff anticipates any such thing. Eventually, the people of these United States will have to learn to rely more on themselves for survival, and less on the nanny state. Eventually, when a natural disaster strikes and the victims come calling on their government with outlandish demands, like homeowners wanting a new house from their insurance company because a tree clipped their roof, the taxpayers will have to answer the question, and not just roll it over to the future, should I write a check to meet their demands?
Would you be willing to write a $160 check to pay for New Jersey/New York to get their $50 billion? Would you be willing to have your family pay $650 more per taxes this year to provide New Jersey/New York $50 billion? If the answer is no, then maybe John Boehner and the House Republicans need to grow a pair and refuse to do so for you, no matter how much New Jersey’s governor grandstands otherwise.