‘Big Government finally got one right’

Hurricane Irene is gone, but its affects are still being felt. As of this morning, the death toll had climbed to 40.

And while relief efforts continue, there are already some preliminary evaluations on how officials prepared and responded to the storm. Dana Milbank explains today, “Don’t expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right.”

The Irene government would seem to have its benefits. Before the storm struck, 18 FEMA teams deployed from Florida to Maine, repositioning as the emphasis moved to New England. Food, water, generators and tarps were in place along the storm’s path. In Vermont, when the storm forced evacuation of the state emergency operations center, the workers relocated to a FEMA facility. In North Carolina, FEMA provided in-the-dark local authorities with generator power. And everywhere, FEMA, given new authority by Congress after Katrina, didn’t have to wait for states to request help.

“We have to go fast; we have to base it upon the potential impacts,” [FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate] said Monday, describing the Irene response. “That’s why we look at these forecasts we get from the hurricane center, and we make the decisions based upon what the potential impacts could be. If you wait till you know how bad it is, it becomes harder to change the outcome.”

That’s one model. The other model is to have a weak federal government, without the funds to forecast storms or to launch a robust emergency response in time to do any good. You might call that the Tea Party model.

That Tea Party model, by the way, isn’t a hypothetical scenario — congressional Republicans are not only unwilling to provide emergency disaster relief without offsetting spending cuts, they’re also eager to cut the resources NOAA needs to track storms, while also slashing the FEMA budget.

This week, federal agencies are winning generally rave reviews, but if the public expects equally competent disaster response efforts in the future, Americans will have to hope the GOP agenda is rejected.

Let’s also note, by the way, that it’s not just federal agencies that were on the ball when it came to this hurricane. Politico noted today, “If this was a test, the collection of East Coast governors known for their national ambitions passed.” The article added that these governors “have gotten kudos for doing everything they could to limit casualties and chaos in the face of the uncontrollable.”

And let’s also not forget President Obama. It seems presidents are generally in a no-win scenario when dealing with a natural disaster — they only get attention if their administration fails the test — but I’m struck by the extent to which Obama has been all over this storm.

Over the last week, we’ve seen the president host multiple teleconferences with his emergency response teams, receiving updates before, during, and after the storm, in addition to a series of preparedness discussions with regional governors. Cutting his vacation short, Obama delivered a public address on Friday, urging Americans in targeted areas to get prepared; he went to FEMA headquarters on Saturday; and he delivered another public address on Sunday, giving Americans a status check. Obama also, of course, dispatched response teams up and down the East coast.

This was a president fully engaged in the topic at hand, and it reinforced Milbank’s assertion that the government got this one just right.