Those of us who lived through the Great Nashville Flood can certainly empathize with the victims of the “Frankenstorm” that just hammered millions of Americans, leaving many of them temporarily underwater, without electricity and faced with massive cleanup projects.
One of my favorite political cartoons has a man clinging desperately to his car in a raging flood. His bumper sticker reads GET BIG GOVERNMENT OFF MY BACK! Overhead, a FEMA first-responder is being lowered from a helicopter to save him.
I’m sure that many of my neighbors whose houses ended up underwater were happy to see FEMA workers here, Johnny-on-the-spot, helping to start and coordinate the recovery process.
But it’s quite fashionable these days — especially since the rise of the Tea Party — to complain bitterly about taxes and damn the federal government for anything and everything that doesn’t work out perfectly. If a dime gets wasted on green energy or disaster relief, it’s “obvious” to the lunatic fringe that the federal government is the Devil, President Obama is the Anti-Christ, and Mitt Romney is the Savior.
But is Romney the promised messiah, really? He claims that anything the federal government can do, the states can do better. That statement plays wonderfully well with the “federal government is the Devil” crowd. But when a huge storm strikes, is a centralized federal agency bound to be outperformed by states whose actions are uncoordinated, and probably unfunded? Can we really save money by duplicating FEMA 50 times?
Ironically, when there was relatively minor flooding in Massachusetts, it seems Romney didn’t come close to outperforming FEMA. Far from it.
In 2005, the Green River flooded Greenfield, destroying a trailer park and low-income housing. Greenfield’s Mayor, Christine Forgey, says she didn’t hear from Romney on the first day. A resident turned the high school into a crisis shelter. A radio station launched a food/clothing drive. The Red Cross provided services. But Romney was nowhere to be found. New Hampshire’s Governor, John Lynch, called up the National Guard and cut short his trip to Europe, but Romney couldn’t even be bothered to return Forgery’s phone calls.
Only after heavy criticism from the press did Romney finally visit Greenfield. But Forgey says she never met Romney, because his visit was unannounced. Would FEMA have made that mistake?
Romney got lost, according to John Barrett, who said Romney called him to say that he was in the area when he was actually in the wrong county, an hour away. “I don’t think he understood that was part of the job ... dealing with catastrophic storms,” said Barrett, obviously not convinced that Romney can outperform FEMA professionals.
A year later, floods hit Melrose, displacing 8,000 residents, including hundreds of elderly tenants. According to mayor Rob Dolan, FEMA representatives arrived the next day. But even though Melrose was just minutes from Romney’s house and office, Romney was again nowhere to be found, nor did he ever call Dolan.
So Romney himself illustrates why we really do need FEMA. But his allies, including Paul Ryan, want to either get rid of the agency or slash its funding.
Romney once called it “immoral” to borrow money to help flood victims. However, Romney, a former Mormon Bishop and therefore someone who should presumably understand the term, didn’t call it “immoral” for the federal government to borrow billions to bail out the Olympic games and his rich Wall Street cronies. He obviously doesn’t consider it “immoral” to borrow the better part of $7 trillion to give more tax cuts to the wealthy and increase defense spending for things the Pentagon hasn't even requested. According to Bishop Romney, it seems the only people it’s “immoral” to help are the 47 percent of Americans who need help the most, including flood victims, Detroit auto workers, homeless veterans, the elderly, and girls who need Planned Parenthood’s help with contraceptives and preventive health care.
“Let them eat cake” seems to be Romney’s personal philosophy, but if the past is prelude, it could be a very soggy meal. And now Romney has suddenly gone mum, refusing to respond to reporter questions about FEMA at least 14 times since the Frankenstorm struck. In his next act of magical transformation, Romney will probably emerge costumed as the champion of FEMA first-responders. But I think American voters are surely wising up, by now.
Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary” at www.thehypertexts.com.