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Romney: Flood Victim Aid is "Immoral"

How Mitt Romney's mishandling of Massachusetts floods in Greenfield, Lowell, Melrose and Peabody proves that he's full of bull and that FEMA really is needed, after all ...

by Michael R. Burch

Those of us who lived through the Great Nashville Flood can certainly empathize with the victims of the "Frankenstorm" that just hammered millions of Americans, leaving many of them temporarily underwater, without electricity and faced with massive cleanup projects.

One of my favorite political cartoons has a man clinging desperately to his car in a raging flood. His bumper sticker reads GET BIG GOVERNMENT OFF MY BACK. Overhead, a FEMA first-responder is being lowered from a helicopter to save him ...

I’m sure that many of my Nashville neighbors whose houses ended up underwater were happy to see FEMA workers arrive, Johnny-on-the-spot, to help to start and coordinate the recovery process. But it’s quite fashionable these days — especially since the rise of the Tea Party — for politicians to complain bitterly about taxes and damn the federal government for anything and everything that doesn’t work out perfectly. If a dime gets wasted on green energy or disaster relief, it’s "obvious" to the lunatic fringe that the federal government is the Devil, President Obama is the Anti-Christ, and Mitt Romney is the Savior.

But is Romney the promised Messiah, really? He claims that anything the federal government can do, the states can do better. That plays wonderfully well with the "federal government is the Devil" crowd. But when a huge storm strikes, isn't a centralized federal agency bound to outperform states whose actions are uncoordinated, and probably unfunded? Can we really save money and improve efficiency by duplicating FEMA fifty times? And just how good are non-professionals at complex disaster relief, really, in the real world?

Ironically, when there was relatively minor flooding in Massachusetts, Governor Willard Mitt Romney didn’t come close to outperforming FEMA. Far from it. According to Daily Kos, "Romney says he wants states to handle emergency response. But when he had the chance to show how well that can work, all he showed was failure and indifference."

In 2005, the Green River flooded Greenfield, destroying a trailer park and low-income housing. Roads were impassable. The water treatment plant was submerged. But
Greenfield's mayor, Christine Forgey, says that she never heard from Romney despite her repeated calls for assistance. A resident turned the town's high school into a crisis shelter. A radio station launched a food and clothing drive. The Red Cross provided services. But Romney, more Stuporman than Superman, was nowhere to be found. New Hampshire’s Governor, John Lynch, called up the National Guard and cut short his trip to Europe, but Romney couldn’t even be bothered to return Forgery’s phone calls. Only after heavy criticism from the press did Romney finally visit Greenfield. But Forgey says she never met Romney, because his visit was unannounced. Would FEMA have made that mistake? Romney got lost, according to John Barrett, who said Romney called him to say that he was in the area when he was actually in the wrong county, an hour away. "I don't think he understood that was part of the job ... dealing with catastrophic storms," said Barrett, obviously not convinced that Romney can outperform FEMA's professionals.

A year later, floods hit Melrose, displacing 8,000 residents, including hundreds of elderly tenants. According to mayor Rob Dolan, Senator Ted Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, called almost immediately to offer support. FEMA representatives arrived the next day. But even though Melrose was just minutes from Romney's house and office, Romney was nowhere to be seen, nor did he ever call Dolan.

Romney insists that states can handle floods better than the federal government, but in 2004 he vetoed flood control for Peabody after a flood, then lied about it. Peabody officials harshly criticized Romneyís decision to block $5.7 million to pay for a flood control project. The state funds would have been quadrupled by $22 million in federal matching money, but Romney still nixed the project. At a State House press conference, Romney said that he had tried to contact Peabody officials to obtain more information about the funding, but was unable to reach anyone. State Senator Frederick E. Berry responded: "We hand-delivered all kinds of information. They had all the information they needed Ö I donít want to use the word Ďlieí but Ö how he could say he didnít get the information? Thatís not true."

At the time John Barrett was the mayor of North Adams and the vice president of the Massachusetts Mayors Association. He said the issue of flooding in Peabody was critical and that local officials had reached out to the legislature for help. "Every time it rained, it wiped out their downtown," Barrett told Huffington Post. Barrett ascribed Romney's veto of the Peabody project to a lack of familiarity with state infrastructure. "This was not unusual for him. He didnít understand infrastructure improvements. It was just the bottom line. He never visited communities. He never understood the issues. He never sat down with mayors or city managers. He never understood why those things were in the budget," Barrett said. "That money was requested by locals. It was a major league problem."

During the Mother's Day floods of 2006, the problem was especially acute along the Merrimack River and in the city of Lowell, where Romney's response was considered, well, leaky. The right-leaning Lowell Sun was particularly displeased: "We find it inconceivable that Gov. Mitt Romney claims the state can do nothing to help those residents still struggling to rebuild homes and businesses after the May flood. Massachusetts is sitting on millions in unspent emergency funds from Hurricane Katrina and more than $1 billion in cash reserves, yet Romney has failed to even respond to the Lowell delegation's requests to discuss additional aid for victims. The governor's spokesman — since Romney can't be bothered to comment now that the photo opportunities have dried up even though some residents' basements haven't — said the state will not consider spending its own money for flood victims until it's clear how much cash the federal government will give."

In May 2006, Peabody flooded again, and local officials quickly blamed Romney, slamming him for doing a photo-op tour of the disaster area. As the Associated Press reported, Romney's critics saw political hype in the media blitz, such as Romney claiming to prevent non-existent looting. "The first thing I wouldn't do is showboat for the national cameras and say I was going to prevent looting on the North Shore," Democratic candidate for governor Chris Gabrieli said. Critics also faulted Romney's 2004 veto of a flood control project for Peabody. Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Therese Murray said, "Peabody today is under water" because of Romney's action.

Despite sitting on a billion in Katrina money and other cash reserves, Romney declined to provide aid to the affected citizens until he could see how much the feds would give. Then in the GOP primary debates he said the feds should send FEMA responsibilities back to the states. This absurd neither-nor policy was ratified by his campaign:
"Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions," said Amanda Henneberg, a Romney campaign spokeswoman. "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 it makes absolutely no sense to put the primary responsibility in the state's hands, if Governors like Mitt Romney are going to sit on their hands until FEMA acts.

George Haddow, a private disaster relief consultant and former deputy chief of staff at FEMA, said Romney’s vision for FEMA sounds like that of former President George W. Bush, who was criticized for the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "The problem is it doesnít reflect the reality of major disasters," Haddow said.

"You need FEMA, and you need a large FEMA," added Thomas DeGregori, a professor of economics at the University of Houston and an expert on disaster relief. "FEMA can do things that no state or local government can do, and often has experience and expertise that they donít have."

So Romney himself, through his incompetence and mismanagement of relatively small floods, illustrates why we really do need FEMA, after all. But he and his addled allies, including running mate Paul Ryan, still want to either get rid of the agency or slash its funding.

Romney once called it "immoral" to borrow money to help flood victims. However, Romney, a former Mormon Bishop and therefore someone who should presumably understand the term, didn't call it "immoral" for the federal government to borrow billions to bail out the Olympic games and his rich Wall Street cronies. He obviously doesn't consider it "immoral" to borrow the better part of $7 trillion to give more tax cuts to the wealthy and increase defense spending for things the Pentagon hasn't even requested. According to Bishop Romney, it seems the only people it's "immoral" to help are the 47% of Americans who need help the most, including flood victims, first responders, Detroit auto workers, soldiers, veterans, the elderly, and girls who need Planned Parenthood’s help with contraceptives and preventive healthcare.

The issue came up at a Union Hall in Canton, Ohio where steelworker Leo Gerard slammed Romney’s comments to cheering workers at the Golden Lodge: "Ask him to go down there this afternoon and tell those people it’s 'immoral' to have the government come help you when youíve lost your business, youíve lost your roads, youíve lost your schools!"

"Let them eat cake" seems to be Romney’s personal philosophy, but if the past is prelude, it could be a very soggy meal. And now Romney has suddenly gone mum, refusing to respond to reporter questions about FEMA at least 14 times since the Frankenstorm struck. In his next act of magical transformation, Romney will probably emerge costumed as the caped champion of FEMA first-responders. But I think American voters are surely wising up, by now ...  

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