In our November 25, 2013, issue, Jonathan V. Last chronicled the story of Ocean Grove, the New Jersey shore town which was being denied FEMA relief funds to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy. The problem was that Ocean Grove was originally settled as a Methodist campsite and that the town remains nominally Christian—which is to say that it is governed by a “Camp Meeting Association,” which has roughly the power of a garden-variety homeowner’s association. But which also happens to own all of the land.
Like many other towns along the Jersey shore, Ocean Grove had its boardwalk swept out to sea. FEMA stepped in to shoulder the cost of rebuilding the boardwalks in those other towns. But not in Ocean Grove. It said that since the boardwalk technically belonged to the Camp Meeting Association, that made it a private religious “recreational facility” and as such ineligible for aid. Never mind that FEMA had, after earlier storms, helped rebuild Ocean Grove’s boardwalk. Under the Obama administration, there would be a new precedent.
The most plausible explanation for the change in government policy was that Ocean Grove had been in 2007 the site of a minor skirmish in the gay marriage wars. And unlike President Obama, the Camp Meeting Association had not sufficiently evolved in its views.
The town was taken aback by FEMA’s denial. They appealed and were denied again. They then constructed a second appeal, in which they changed the rationale for the boardwalk. Instead of saying that it was a public accommodation (which it is), they claimed that the boardwalk’s essential purpose is to act as “a public thoroughfare in providing emergency access and life-saving operations.” The boardwalk isn’t there for people to enjoy it—it’s there for safety!
After months of dithering (and lobbying from New Jersey’s Democratic delegation in Congress), FEMA has relented. Last week FEMA announced that it now deems Ocean Grove “eligible” for aid. Whether it will actually dispense aid, of course, is a separate question. It’s not clear yet if this represents a genuine reversal by the administration, or simply the kind of empty “compromise” that President Obama has become known for.
A reporter today asked the White House why folks in New Jersey and New York still don't have power "weeks" after Hurricane Sandy:
"Well, I would point you to the substantial and fast effort that the president oversaw in terms of the federal response to this terrible storm," White House press secretary Jay Carney said, dodging the question. "And I think that that effort ... has been documented."
It has been a little more than a month since Hurricane Sandy made landfall and pounded the Atlantic shores of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Within hours, government big dogs, the president included, were on the scene promising speedy and comprehensive relief. When they left to attend to campaigning and other business, the bureaucrats arrived and took over. Now, things proceed slowly and in the usual fashion.
As people in New York were suffering and hospitals were being evacuated, the New York Times editorial page seized the occasion to score political points: “Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of ‘big government,’ which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it.” This was dishonest partisan spin.
President Obama comes to work, conducts a few conference calls on Hurricane Sandy, holds a press conference, and later travels to New Jersey to survey the damage caused by the storm. In doing so, he performs a job expected of him as president.
A host of liberal politicians and pundits have taken House Republican leader Eric Cantor to task for daring to insist that any disaster spending allocated to pay for the damage done by Hurricane Irene be offset in the budget elsewhere. They view Cantor as injecting politics into the country’s disaster management programs.
Today, in the Post Dana Milbank makes a fairly bold assertion:
Don’t expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right.
Milbank is, of course, talking about how the the federal government's response to Hurricane Irene was a smashing success. The hurricane hit landfall just ten miles off from where NOAA had predicted, and Milbank notes that FEMA and NOAA both got "high marks" for their response to the hurricane.
Michael D. Brown says he got a bad rap. With the statement, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” on September 2, 2005, George W. Bush made Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the name and face of governmental incompetence after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast. Ten days later, Brown resigned.