As Hurricane Irene barrels towards the East Coast the public once again will focus on the Obama administration and FEMA’s response to the natural disaster. FEMA has already sent response teams to North Carolina, and is telling all residents of the East Coast to be prepared for landfall. Under the Obama administration, FEMA has responded to the short-term needs of communities after they are impacted by natural disasters. Search and rescue teams are quickly dispatched and food and water is given to those who need it. However, without the help of Congress FEMA has struggled to provide for the long-term needs of ravaged communities. One cannot rebuild a school or a house with water bottles, which has to be a worrisome fact for residents of the East Coast given Irene’s potential.
2011 has already seen an unprecedented amount of natural disasters including the floods of the Midwest, enormous wildfires in the Texas and the Southeast, and horrific tornadoes in Tuscaloosa and Joplin. These disasters have already stretched the FEMA budget thin, and the Republican-led Congress has not shown a willingness to add additional, supplemental funds. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) demanded that any aid for Joplin be “offset” with accompanying spending cuts, even though the same demands had not been made for previous disasters. Even natural disasters have now become part of a “balanced budget” mantra in Washington D.C., with accompanying fights over spending cuts or tax increases. As a result, many communities have not been given federal aid to rebuild after natural disasters destroy their homes, businesses, and infrastructure.
As the picture to the left shows, right now Hurricane Irene is projected to become a “major hurricane” with winds over 110 MPH right before it goes over North Carolina. FEMA has the resources to coordinate evacuations and to search and rescue operations in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irene. The really expensive part of “recovery” is the rebuilding in the weeks and months after a hurricane. The residents of Southern Mississippi can still see the scars of Katrina. Many homes and businesses were never rebuilt because of a lack of aid and/or insurance coverage. At the very least, North Carolina is likely to sustain significant property, and it is not clear that this Congress would authorize aid for the area to rebuild. North Carolina may be helped by the fact that it will be crucial in deciding who win the next presidential election, a cynical yet important fact.
Irene could also do a significant amount of damage to other states as well. Right now the National Hurricane Center projects the storm system will weaken from a “major hurricane” to a “hurricane” as it passes over North Carolina. At this point the storm will still be a threat to create huge storm surges with winds of 74MPH to 110MPH. At this point the storm is projected to go right over the heavily populated areas of New Jersey, New York City, and Boston. Depending on the strength of the hurricane and the angle of impact, the property damage could be enormous. One report stated that the damage would exceed $100 billion from a major hurricane impacting New York City alone. If Congress had qualms about approving $1 billion for Joplin they will likely balk at $100 billion for East Coast if Irene does major damage.
If the storm actually strengthens, it could create a “nightmare” scenario involving a significant loss of life. Unlike the people of Florida and North Carolina, most residents of New Jersey and New York City are unprepared and/or unwilling to leave in the event of a major hurricane. The interstate system could not handle a major evacuation of all the population centers along the East Coast.
Of course, everything is still speculation at this point. Analysts worried about the same kind of scenario with Hurricane Earl in 2010, but that storm system ended up veering the east and causing little damage. The country can only hope Irene does the same, because the current Congress will likely struggle to put together a significant aid package if the Irene takes a turn for the worse.