Hurricane Sandy Damages: Why Funding for Public Services Matters More Than Ever

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said it well: “I don’t give a damn about election day. It doesn’t matter a lick to me. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

He’s right to address his state’s emergency apolitically. Unfortunately, the election's outcome can weaken our country’s capacity to respond to weather-related emergencies. Government budgets reflect priorities. In no other time do we critically reflect on what matters to us most than in times of danger and uncertainty. In these times, we must ask ourselves, how can we prepare for the short-term, what is keeping us safe now, during the emergency, and what will help our communities re-build quickly?

If an accurate poll could be conducted right now, I believe a majority of Americans would agree that well-funded public services are critical to re-building infrastructure, supporting thriving small businesses, maintaining safe communities, and protecting our prized natural environment.

'State of Emergency' declarations need to be quickly approved, and evacuation procedures need to be widely communicated. Roads have to be monitored and kept clear of broken down vehicles and debris. Police dispatchers and first-responders have to be alert and equipped for duty. Nurses have to stay on-call and work overtime to handle medical emergencies. Homeless shelters have to be quickly staffed and stocked with nutritious meals. Social workers and probation officers need to track their clients. Home-care providers must continue looking after the disabled and elderly.

These are processes we must have to make sure we can account for everyone. We perform these public services to make sure everyone has a fair shot at surviving a natural disaster. They are not lucrative programs, and they shouldn’t be. Gaining a competitive advantage because someone else can not afford to or physically help themselves is unfair, though it happens all the time.

As Nate Silver notes, polling over the next week will be extraordinarily skewed. On the other hand, one-third of the country will still be directly affected by Hurricane Sandy. Despite lack of power, political positions will shift. I believe that the stories of success and failure in responding to Hurricane Sandy will decisively frame our country’s historic election next week.  

While the list is extensive, here are three different domestic security threats in three critical election states. They represent a breadth of issues facing storm-stricken communities across the east coast.

North Carolina:

Highway 12, a major corridor connecting the Outer Banks to the mainland, is currently submerged under hurricane floods and sand. The Army Corps of Engineers (a civil works program funded by our country’s discretionary defense budget) and North Carolina state department transportation officials are assessing the roads and attempting to make necessary repairs. According to a 2011 state report, coastal tourism brought in $2.6 billion to North Carolina’s economy, supporting around 50,000 jobs. Without this vital public road, small businesses will suffer and North Carolina's overall finances will take a deep hit.

Economists like Harvard’s Edward Glaeser argue that to accurately reflect our economy's need, infrastructure should be designed and built by the private sector.

My response to him has three points: First, who will finance roads like Highway 12 that are repeatedly destroyed? Second, scientists note that soil erosion will only worsen, meaning that future storms will dismantle the road again. Building roads is not a sound financial investment; however, it must be done. Infrastructure investment is a role for government. Third, repairing the road is indeed an economic investment. Investments like it all across the country allow our entertainment and hospitality industries along the coastlines to thrive.

Pennsylvania:

About a dozen nuclear reactors reside in Hurricane Sandy’s path, and four of them are in Pennsylvania. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission plays a role in protecting these reactors from harm during weather emergencies. So far, all of our reactors remain unscathed.

But a year ago, the world watched an earthquake and subsequent tsunami debilitate Japan’s Fukushima-based nuclear reactor. Since then, Japan’s economy continues to plummet, mirroring the United States’ recession due to high risk and short-sighted investment banking. One melt-down resulted in a chain-reaction of threats to Japan's nuclear facilities. Eventually, Japan shut down 54 nuclear reactors, leading to extreme energy insufficiency. As a result of poor governing decisions, Japan's public distrust of government is at an all-time high. Such lack of trust in leadership and energy insufficiency can significantly harm Japan's economic rebound.

While our economy is recovering, we are still relatively weak. The Romney budget slashes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's budget by $50 million, potentially turning our protected energy supply into a domestic threat. 

New Jersey:

Within the Garden State, there are more Superfund sites on the national priority list than any other state. Romney's budget guts Superfund cleanup funding by approximately $60 million. While the EPA's remediation efforts are already painfully slow, if funding had been cut four years ago, we could be looking at a far worse outlook. Without the EPA's Superfund Program, buried toxic waste would not be safely contained. Hazardous chemicals could seep into our water supply, escaped radiation could hurt impoverished neighborhoods, and property values could plummet. 

These are the types of situations we need to analyze over the next week. The question is not just "Are we better off than four years ago?" The question is also: "If different budget choices were made four years ago, how would this past week have gone differently?"

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Adil Ahmed

small-business advocate. union organizer.

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