Disaster Response and Federalism

The title of a New York Times editorial claims that “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.” The Times’ implies that when confronted with a major natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, Americans would be screwed if they didn’t have bureaucrats from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to “to decide where rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate.”

(Gee, I had no idea that it was government planners who directed my local Wegmans to ramp up shipments of bottled water to meet the demand of people rushing to stock up on H2O.)

One would think that the Times’ might have been more restrained in casting as our savior the same outfit that responded to Hurricane Katrina with trailers contaminated with formaldehyde. Nope. According to the Times, it’s crazy to think that the “financially strapped states” could handle disaster relief. “Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid?” the Times asks. “Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages.”

Why shouldn’t the states be responsible for paying for disaster response? The last time I checked, the federal government was also financially strapped. Regardless of which level of government assumes the responsibility of paying for it, the money ultimately comes from taxpayers. Under the current arrangement, taxpayers in, say, Arizona will pay for disaster recovery in Pennsylvania. Is it really more absurd to expect the citizens of Pennsylvania to pay for their own disaster response than people living in, say, the Rockies?

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