Hurricane Sandy highlights how Obama and Romney respond to disasters.
By Ed O’Keefe, The Washington Post, Updated: Monday, October 29, 1:00 PM
Hurricane Sandy’s battering of the East Coast is expected to produce historic rainfall totals and cause billions of dollars in damage and wholesale disruptions to the close presidential race. The storm could also provide a moment of sharp contrast between President Obama and Mitt Romney and how their different ideas of governing apply to the federal response to large-scale disasters.
Obama has been aggressive about bolstering the federal government’s capability to respond to disasters, while his Republican challenger believes that states should be the primary responders in such situations and has suggested that disaster response could be privatized.
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Obama campaigned four years ago on a promise to revamp the federal government’s disaster-response functions and has embraced changes long sought by state governors and professional emergency managers. Since becoming president, he has led the federal response to multiple natural disasters, including tornadoes, flooding and major hurricanes, learning from government stumbles during the presidency of George W. Bush — most notably in the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Obama’s posture has been to order federal agencies to aggressively prepare for and respond to major storms and other disasters.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney requested federal disaster assistance for storm cleanup, and he has toured storm-ravaged communities as a presidential candidate, but he has agreed with some who suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be dissolved as part of budget cuts.
When moderator John King suggested during a June 2011 CNN debate that federal disaster response could be curtailed to save federal dollars, Romney said: “Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
Romney has not made similar comments since that debate, and his aides insisted Monday that he would not abolish FEMA if he became president.
“Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” said campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”
But this is exactly how the system currently works: Local and state officials respond to disasters and make requests of the federal government for additional supplies or money only when needed. Reforms enacted since Hurricane Katrina permit governors to make requests in advance to ensure that federal officials are on the ground to assist with initial damage assessments and more quickly report back to Washington for help.
For example, Obama has signed at least nine federal emergency disaster declarations in the past 24 hours at the request of state governors, directing FEMA to deploy more resources in anticipation of significant recovery efforts. He canceled campaign stops for Monday and Tuesday to return to the White House to oversee the federal government’s evolving storm response.
“This is going to be a big and powerful storm,” the president told reporters at the White House on Monday. A day earlier, Obama visited FEMA headquarters and said his administration would provide the best possible response to the big and messy storm system.
Romney planned to stick with campaign events Monday in Iowa and Ohio, but canceled events in Virginia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Romney spoke with officials at FEMA and the National Weather Service and with Republican Govs. Robert F. McDonnell (Va.) and Chris Christie (N.J.) to keep tabs on storm preparations. Aides said he planned on calling Democratic governors. In an e-mail to supporters Sunday night, Romney also encouraged people to donate to the Red Cross.
Aides said Romney campaign offices would continue collecting supplies to donate later to storm victims — a move that goes against the advice of professional emergency managers, who have long advised that donations of money and blood are more critical in the hours before and after a storm.
“Large amounts of donations cause significant management problems for those seeking to aid victims,” said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “People often donate things that are not needed or requested. Standard advice is to give money to legitimate charities like the Red Cross and to other entities that are capable of managing those funds.”
Tierney, who has studied the government’s response to natural disasters for decades, said she was unaware of any serious effort to privatize FEMA beyond the comments made by Romney and other GOP presidential candidates last year.“It’s well known that many states lack the capacity to do a lot of what is needed in the areas of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery, and especially in these fiscal times, I just cannot envision states doing a very good job in the disaster area on their own, without federal carrots and sticks,” she said, adding that FEMA already maintains strong ties to the public sector, especially through partnerships with national retailers, which often deploy supplies after a storm.
“The U.S. has a good infrastructure for managing hazards and disasters that is widely considered to be the best in the world,” Tierney added. “It certainly has its faults, but, basically, it’s a sound system that appears to be able to learn from its mistakes,” including the response to Katrina, she said.
FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate has batted away questions before about possible privatization of his agency: “I’m too busy working on other stuff. Ask that to somebody who would give you the time and day to answer that,” he said when asked by The Washington Post in a September 2011 interview.
Fugate and Obama have earned praise for restoring the agency’s reputation in the years since Katrina. Despite working for then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as head of the state’s emergency agency, Fugate said he rebuffed overtures from George W. Bush to lead FEMA after Katrina, saying that the GOP administration did not want to rebuild the agency in the fashion since embraced by Obama.
Although President Bill Clinton revamped FEMA after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, observers say the agency suffered from budget cuts and a lack of professional emergency managers during the George W. Bush administration, including the appointment of then-Administrator Michael D. Brown, who had no professional experience in disaster response.
Congress has broadened FEMA’s authority so that the agency can respond in advance of major storms, instead of waiting for governors to request federal aid after a disaster strikes. The measures earned plaudits from then-Gov. Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana — usually tough Obama critics — and professional emergency managers who had sought the changes for years.
“We have a much better and more capable FEMA than we’ve had at various times in the past,” said Randy Duncan, director of the emergency management agency in Sedgwick County, Kan., and a leader of the International Association of Emergency Managers. “We very much like seeing people with a professional background in emergency management occupy that federal post. We think that it is inappropriate to put someone in that position based solely on political merit. We need a professional emergency manager in there.”
Jim Mullen, director of the Washington State Emergency Management Division and president of the National Emergency Management Association, said Obama’s legacy at FEMA has been restoring “strong professional emergency managers who can attract other emergency management professionals and support the ones already there and make certain that on this, at least, we should all be willing to put everything else aside and do what’s necessary for our country.”
Debate over whether the storm helps or hurts Obama or Romney politically is likely to continue, but some have suggested that a well-planned federal response could bolster the president in the closing days of the campaign.
“The American people look to him, and I’m sure he will conduct himself and play his leadership role in a fine fashion,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “So I would imagine that might help him a little bit.”
Some emergency managers say that if Romney wins, he would be wise to ask Fugate to continue leading FEMA to maintain the stable working arrangement between the agency’s career staffers and political appointees.
“In any organization, there’s the career team and there’s the team from one administration to another,” Mullen said. “Those teams need to be able to mesh, and that’s what we’ll be looking for.”
Obama’s changes at FEMA “have been night and day” compared with those under previous administrations, according to one veteran emergency manager who was not authorized to speak publicly for fear of jeopardizing federal disaster grant requests. “I don’t know who will be the next president, but they can’t put a political hack in the job of leading FEMA ever again.”
Obama, Romney respond to Hurricane Sandy, as it upends campaign plans.
Hurricane Sandy upended the closely fought presidential campaign Monday, canceling some early voting and disrupting campaign events in battleground states a week before Election Day.
President Obama and Mitt Romney tried to navigate the tricky politics of dealing with the historic storm. It remained unclear which candidate, if either, would benefit, but their somewhat differing responses on Monday gave voters more insight into two men who have offered starkly different visions for America.
Romney, in perhaps the more difficult role, of challenger, struggled slightly to hit a note that sounded presidential while maintaining his apparent momentum in the race: He initially vowed to press ahead with his campaign events but then abruptly canceled most of them for the duration of the storm.
Obama, after touring the battleground states last week and shouting himself hoarse at rallies, pivoted to his role as commander in chief. He canceled an appearance in Orlando with former president Bill Clinton, returned to Washington, convened a storm briefing in the White House situation room and then addressed the nation.
“Obviously, everyone is aware at this point that this is going to be a big and powerful storm,” Obama said. “Millions of people are going to be affected.”
In response to a question about the impact on the election, he said: “Right now, our number one priority is to make sure we are saving lives.’’
But politics hung over the day, if more discreetly than usual, as both campaigns recalibrated their strategies in a race that had been widely seen as a dead heat but that is now essentially frozen in place until the storm is over — and perhaps beyond. The Obama campaign convened a conference call to say that the president’s victory is inevitable, while Romney aides cited newspaper endorsements of the Republican candidate and evidence of his momentum in the critical state of Ohio.
Obama aides had expressed concern that getting their supporters to the polls for early voting, a key part of their strategy, could be affected by the storm.
In the Washington region, early voting was suspended in the District and in Maryland. In Virginia, a battleground state, the storm forced the suspension of in-person absentee voting in 26 localities Monday, mostly in the heavily populated Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regions. Further closures were likely Tuesday, officials said.
A few places in North Carolina also closed down early voting, but it continued unabated in Ohio, perhaps the biggest prize of all.
Aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Jay Carney said he did not know whether Obama had the power to delay the election if there were still widespread power outages next week. But officials in Virginia said the election would proceed, and they announced plans to move polling locations, assuring the public that most voting equipment can operate on batteries.
If power is still out on Election Day, the areas that could be affected include Philadelphia, where Obama urgently needs a strong turnout in a state where Romney has been moving up in the polls, and Southwest Virginia, the most conservative part of the state, which appears primed for a sizable snowstorm.
Even the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report, due out Friday and considered important in a campaign that has turned on the economy, could be affected, since the storm closed down some federal agencies. Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio said that staffers “are working hard” to get the report out on time.
As the day began, the Romney campaign issued a statement saying the candidate would maintain a full schedule of events Monday in Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, and that running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would as well.
Later in the morning, the campaign canceled all of Romney’s rallies for Monday night and Tuesday, as he was about to begin his first event of the day at a high school in Ohio. Romney’s advisers said they were worried about what one called the “split-screen problem” — live images of him rallying enthusiastic supporters juxtaposed against images of devastation along the Eastern Seaboard.
The storm also disrupted the closing argument Romney had been planning to unveil on Monday with a retooled stump speech focusing on his promise of “real change on Day One.” At a rally in Iowa before his events were cancelled, Romney struck a positive tone on the future of the country and made note of the storm, telling the crowd that “the damage will probably be significant” and urging supporters to donate to the American Red Cross. He added that he had spoken with the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Carney said it was too soon to assess the storm’s impact on the election. But Obama’s top strategists on Monday pressed forward with a story line that victory remains in reach — and, in fact, is inevitable.
The president’s team has “data and facts on our side, versus spin and wishful thinking on theirs,” campaign manager Jim Messina boasted on a conference call with reporters. “What the facts and numbers clearly show is that the president is going to win this election.”
The contrasting approaches to the storm reflected two candidates with differing visions for America, who are now trying to juggle the imperatives of responding to a natural disaster.
For Obama, the storm’s challenge is a delicate one: to function as an effective commander in chief while waging a fight for his political life — and to avoid being seen as placing politics over the needs of storm-damaged areas and their residents.
Romney also will need to respond to storm damage but avoid the appearance of exploiting it for political gain.
Volunteers for both Obama and Romney in Virginia said they weren’t especially alarmed by the potential for Sandy to set them back politically; their sense was that the storm’s impact would be neutral, since it would freeze activity for everyone — and that they would resume the frenetic pace once Sandy had passed.
Barbara Kanninen, a volunteer from Arlington and co-chairwoman of the president’s “Women for Obama” effort in Virginia, said: “I haven’t sensed any frustration on the part of the staff, volunteers or friends. I’m not frustrated, either. Our first priority is everyone’s safety.”
And Christine O’Connor, a Romney volunteer from Arlington said, “Most Republicans prefer to vote on Election Day, so that’s still good for us. .?.?. I’m just going to play it by ear to see if we have power.”
Ed O’Keefe and Amy Gardner contributed to this report.
But Mitt Romney wants to give FEMA’s central emergency responsibilities to 50 flailing states.