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Why Republicans Are Turning Their Chainsaws on FEMA

Big storms are the new normal in a world with a changing climate, but instead of improving our emergency systems, the GOP wants to privatize disaster relief and put profit before people.

FEMA Corps Logistics Team works closely with the deployment of ready meals in preparations to Hurricane Sandy in Minden, Louisiana, October 28. (Photo: Daniel Llargues / FEMA)

Although Mitt Romney would prefer you didn’t think about it, the true test of the quality and resilience of a nation and its political systems comes when it’s most stressed. He suggests such crises are opportunities for profit, which is why he called for the privatization of FEMA. Historically, though, Americans have seen times of crisis as a time to come together and help each other out.

There’s 5% more moisture in our atmosphere and higher levels of CO2 than at any other time during human history, so it’s not surprising that we’re facing tropical storm-force winds extending out 500 miles, as Hurricane Sandy cuts a path through seven states and 50 million Americans.

It’s probably not a coincidence that record-breaking Sandy is here just after the warmest September recorded and in the midst of the warmest decade ever recorded. It almost certainly represents the “new normal” in this hostile-weather new world. Which makes how we as citizens respond to these “Franken-storms,” mile-long tornados, and levee-busting floods all the more important.

When President Jimmy Carter created FEMA, he did it so cities and states would never again be alone in rebuilding after catastrophes. As FEMA’s mission statement reads: “FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.”

Key words there: “we work together.

Whether you’re cleaning up your neighborhood or cleaning up after a hurricane, we all know things work out best when we’re all in it together. That’s why we’ve included disaster relief efforts as part of our commons, right alongside law enforcement and fire protection.

These aren’t services that work best when run for a profit or to maximize wealth for shareholders; these are services owned by “we the people” to serve “we the people,,” and work best when kept in that pure, democratic form.

Every year, FEMA responds to well over 100 disaster emergencies nationwide and helps rebuild communities drenched by floods, scorched by wildfires, and toppled by tornados.

FEMA has had a few failures – most notably under the Bush Administration in New Orleans after Katrina. But that was due to mismanagement at FEMA, not a flaw in the conception of FEMA. As historian and best-selling author Thomas Frank explained, Republicans say government is a “bad thing,” then when they get into government they put incompetent people in charge who run it badly, so in the future they can say, “We told you so, government is bad and doesn’t work!”

So it shouldn’t surprise us that Republicans have turned their chainsaws in the direction of FEMA. And they’re cheered on by corporate profiteers who see big bucks in “the disaster relief in industry” if only they could only extricate FEMA from our commons and, like with our privatized prisons, replace it with themselves.

For example, Republican Primary candidate Mitt Romney said that FEMA should be “sent back to the private sector.”

As in, “We should rely on churches and a for-profit ‘disaster industry’ to save lives and rebuild devastated communities.”

The only problem with that logic and assertion is that it didn’t work in the past, which is why FEMA was created in the first place.

As we learned in Tennessee last year, when for-profit subscription firefighters sat by and watched a family’s home burn down, turning the commons into a profit center is insane.

But that’s what Mitt Romney and Republicans support. Or at the very least, they support sending disaster relief back to the states. As in, “Sorry Louisiana, you’re on your own!”

Even more bizarre, Romney and corporatist Republicans want to privatize FEMA just as climate change-induced storms are increasing. Cash-strapped communities in Michigan are turning off streetlights and taking cops off the streets, but Mitt Romney wants them to foot the bill for natural disasters, too.

Republicans in Congress have chipped away at our disaster relief commons. In virtually each and every budget showdown, they’ve demanded massive cuts to FEMA’s budget, along with cuts to weather preparedness agencies like NOAA. After all, they have to pay for a $5 trillion tax cut for the top 1% somehow.

Perhaps when Romney trashed FEMA during the primaries, he was just attempting to appeal to the far-right Republican base and he doesn’t really believe FEMA should be privatized. But House Republicans have already acted to limit the agency’s ability to respond to disasters. Among other examples, even after unprecedented, deadly tornados in Joplin and the freak damage caused by Hurricane Irene, House Republicans held up replenishing FEMA funds and demanded local communities ante up more than what’s historically been required.

This attack against FEMA and our commons is also an attack on poor and working class Americans.

It’s generally much easier for the wealthy to ride out Hurricanes from the comfort of their second vacation homes. They can even live-tweet what they see on the Weather Channel. It’s much easier for the wealthy to pay for home repairs with their top-of-the-line home insurance plans. And the rich never miss a few paychecks because they can’t get to work; people like Mitt Romney and Paris Hilton get their dividend checks wherever they are and whatever they’re doing.

But what about the America that lives in public housing or low-income neighborhoods? What about for the America that lives paycheck-to-paycheck, or just has a small nest-egg for retirement? Who doesn’t have Donald Trump’s private jet to spirit them away from danger? To them, Hurricane Sandy, and every natural disaster, is much more significant.

Everyone will need help after this long week, but to the working class it won’t just be about having the butler clean out a fridge full of unused food. It could be about life-and-death, as we tragically learned after Katrina.

Should we tell Americans that they’re on their own? Or should we, as the wealthiest nation on Earth, uphold that agreement between each other that we’re all in this together, and that when a community in Southern New Jersey is wiped away, a community in Southern California is providing aid to help rebuild?

This cuts to the core difference between conservatives – who think the commons should be a profit center for companies like Bain – and progressives, who believe we’re all in this together and government run by “we the people” has an obligation to help when disaster hits. This is a fundamental political and moral choice.

And one we need, as a nation, to address soon, because on this rapidly warming planet Earth, these types of storms will keep happening with ever-increasing frequency.

Are we a nation of Romney-type hustlers looking to make a buck off everything from outsourcing to disaster relief? Or are we a nation of barn-builders, who pull together when faced with adversity and help each other out.

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