Hurricane Tropical Storm Sandy was huge, perhaps the largest storm recorded to strike the East coast, perhaps, measured in pressure, the most powerful. And it was destructive - very destructive over a wide area of the coast from the Carolinas north to New England. Highways, homes, beaches, large buildings, lives lost. The destruction will probably continue with flooding inland, when rivers swell and in West Virginia when snow quickly melts.
But the scale of the storm and scope of destruction does not mean that it was the worst storm or the worst destruction. It does not mean that nature has given us a reason for inverting the nation's federal arrangement, so as to make the national government responsible for dealing with natural disasters. FEMA has a distant role and is a doler of dollars, but local and state government and private community and charitable organizations are doing well, demonstrating that the American people themselves, organized at the local level at which disasters strike, are prepared and able, absent political corruption and incompetence, to look after themselves.
First, the wartime comparison. Hundreds of thousands of persons evacuated. The terrible fire in Queens destroyed over 100 contiguous houses. Some beach front towns in New Jersey are devastated, houses destroyed, phone and electric poles and lines down, trees down and smashed into houses, some fires, people picking through debris. Inland flooding has destroyed some roads and snow in Maryland and West Virginia has stranded automobiles and made it difficult, sometimes impossible, for emergency responders to get through.
Some commentators have remarked, watching the aerial perspective videos of the devastation that it looks like movies of German cities in World War II. Looks are deceiving. Bad as is the destruction in the Northeast, we are talking about neighborhoods, not whole cities obliterated. We are not talking thousands of deaths. We are not talking about the collapse of civil government and destruction of all property, political, and government records necessary for reconstitution of civil order.
To the contrary, it should be a source of patriotic pride and encouragement about our strength as communities and civil societies that local and state disaster support have been working and civil order has not collapsed.
Local first responders have been out in the midst of the storm - fire, police, EMR, road crews; private company workers such as those of ConEdison, road crews; in New York and New Jersey, Port Authority workers, train workers, did not abandon their positions but worked to shut down the transportation system and close stations in an orderly way. National Guard soldiers, under state governor authority and command, drove into the disaster areas to provide aid and assist protection or property.
I also have no doubt that insurance companies readied their agents to enter neighborhoods as soon as they safely could do. I have no doubt that major retailers, such as Home Depot and Lowe's and Walmart, stocked up on supplies and prepared for consumer need. And private citizens, ordered to evacuate, did so in an orderly way.
I have not heard or read of a single case of panicked or mob activity in evacuating. And I have not heard or read of a single case of looting. Tonight on the Weather Channel, a reporter on Long Island stated that he has heard rumors of looting and fears of looting. The only instance cited was, however, testimony of a family defending the the home of a neighbor. If persons defend their neighbors home, community spirit is strong. None of this inspiring self-control during the disaster was due to the national government or to FEMA. It was due to local and state preparation and an informed and forewarned citizenry.
Second, the destruction on the ground, caused by Storm Sandy, was not the worse seen by American cities or regions. Not by far. Consider the following disasters:
Great Chicago fire, 1871: destroyed 10 square miles of the city, killing 300 persons and leaving 100,000 homeless
San Francisco earthquake, 1906: 80% of city destroyed, 3000 persons killed.
Tri-State Tornado, 1925: tornado cut 219 mile path through Missour, Indiana, and Illinois, killing 625 persons, injuring 2000 more, and destroying 15,000 homes.
Great Mississippi flood, 1927: From Illinois to Louisiana, the Mississippi overflowed levees, flooding nearly 25,000 square miles, destroying or damaging homes of 931,000 people, and causing $1 billion (1927 dollars) in damages.
New England Hurricane, 1938: A catagory 5 hurricane, destroyed 57,000 homes and killed between 682 and 800 people, and caused $306 million damages ($4.7 billion in 2012 dollars)
Third, the notion that the national government should be the first and most important disaster agency is misplaced. FEMA has its role to play. Regional planning and preparation for disaster has to involve the national government. Federal properties, interstate rivers, and the outer coast are federal responsibilities. National money might have to be provided should disasters be sufficiently destructive.
But our governmental system relies primarily upon local and state governments and private organizations to prepare for, cope with, and clean up after disasters, and repair and rebuild our cities, towns, and rural areas. When these governments and elected officials do their jobs, as they have done in preparation for Storm Sandy, loss of life and destruction of property are minimized, the civic order is maintained, and civil society is able to help itself. When private organizations work as they should, such as the Red Cross, private hospitals, volunteer rescue and fire departments, the community infrastructure holds. People are scared, but their pull themselves together and do not panic.
To make disaster preparation and protection and rebuilding a national responsibility would be a disaster in itself. Ask yourself, should a parallel organization of first responders, employed by the government, be established, to work along side local and state police, fire, safety, etc. departments? Or should local and state responders be nationalized? Should the federal government have huge fleets of trucks and repair crews standing at the ready all around the country to rush in and help local communities in a disaster? Should the National Guard be replaced by this federal fleet and its personnel? Do we want huge bureaucracies, headquartered in Washington, D.C., responsible for planning, preparation, and protection of local communities? Imagine the difficulty of their knowing what is going on in a disaster in your neighborhood. Do we want the pay the hundreds of billions of dollars for such nationalization of local disaster relief, when local and state governments are already organized to do the job? As rebuilding requires local input, planning, and decisions by the affected citizens themselves, do you want decisions relocated to Washington, D.C.?
Hurricane Katrina's rampage in New Orleans is not an object lesson that we should nationalize disaster planning and preparation and clean up. The failures in New Orleans were - contrary to the political interpretation offered by news media at the time -, nearly all, failures of local officials, especially the mayor and the governor, from diverting levee and dam funds for other uses, from not planning evacuations, and not availing themselves of the supplies prepositioned by FEMA. Had they done their jobs, much of the human damage would have been minimized.