After disaster, federal gov’t is not so bad

I was in the neighborhood yesterday, so I dropped in on the FEMA center at Rotterdam Square mall to

I was in the neighborhood yesterday, so I dropped in on the FEMA center at Rotterdam Square mall to see how things were going in the matter of flood relief, and I guess things were going as well as could be expected even if it was a slow day, as workers there informed me.

Only a dozen or so customers had shown up to seek help with their flood-caused problems, and that many or more government employees, federal and state, were on hand to help them with paperwork and to guide them through the bureaucratic maze.

There were representatives of FEMA itself — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — as well as various state agencies, ranging from the Office of Children and Family Services to the Department of Motor Vehicles, to deal with whatever your particular problem might be, whether a lost driver’s license or lack of child care. Also a few private nonprofit agencies, like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

FEMA has you fill out a lengthy application, describing your situation, and then directs you around the loop, to whoever might be able to assist you.

My problem — I said for purposes of illustration — was that my house was waterlogged up to a height of 6 feet and might not be salvageable, my homeowner’s insurance did not cover flood damage, and I had no flood insurance because I did not technically live in a flood plain.

I have little money; my wealth being my house. I’ve been paying on it for 12 years, and I’m still paying on it, although now it might not be worth anything.

I got away with my car, but most of my other possessions were a loss. Also, I’ve had to take unpaid leave from my job to stay home and deal with this crisis, swabbing mud out my living room, so I’m close to broke and would be in the street if it weren’t for the help of friends.

What can you do for me? That was my question.

Well, it wouldn’t be a huge amount of money, not enough to replace my house, but it would be something. It would be a maximum of $30,200 from FEMA, though the average grant so far has been just a little over $5,000. I would qualify for a rebate from the state, under a program launched by Gov. Cuomo, for new appliances I buy to replace old ones that were lost — $2,000 for a furnace, $350 for a refrigerator, $250 for a washing machine.

I could also borrow up to $200,000 from the Small Business Administration to build or rebuild my house even though I’m not a businessman. That would be at 2.5 percent interest over 30 years.

I would still be greatly the loser, but it would be a help.

Who does the nitty-gritty of this relief work for FEMA — the scrutinizing of applications, the inspection of damaged properties, the setting up of computers and telephone lines? Well, for the most part they are not full-time employees who sit in Albany or New York City year-round waiting for a disaster the way firefighters sit in a firehouse waiting for a fire.

They are “reservists,” I was informed by Nate Custer, spokesman for FEMA, who is himself a reservist, that is, someone who is retired or has another job and who is “deployed,” like a national guardsman, a couple of times a year, depending on the occurrence of disasters. He is a retired radio and television newsman from Virginia and is up here handling questions from people like me.

I mention these details because they are new to me, and I’m interested in the way things work. It’s something that a government can do, especially a national or federal government, organize an operation like this.

And how do our Tea Party Republican friends feel about it? I mean, the ones who win elections with demands for getting the federal government out of our lives. The ones who think private enterprise, and free markets and local government are the ones to solve problems, not the big, bad federal government, which they equate with some kind of alien monster sucking our lifeblood from us.

Well, they are just fine with it, these guys not being stupid. They know they can get mileage out of denouncing the federal government for involving itself in healthcare — Obamacare — but there’s not a politician in the land, this side of Ron Paul, who’s going to denounce the federal government for providing flood relief, especially when the victims of the flood are the elected official’s own constituents.

They will denounce the federal government for presuming to regulate the amount of pollution that their beloved private industry can pump into the air, but they’re not going to denounce the federal government for handing out $50 million to homeowners in New York state for the losses we suffered from Hurricane Irene.

What is the constitutional justification for such meddling in local affairs?

I asked our own Tea Party Republican congressman, Chris Gibson, and his spokesperson, Stephanie Valle, replied, “I imagine it’s going to be the General Welfare clause.”

I said I imagined the same. It could hardly be anything else, even though the General Welfare clause of the Constitution, giving Congress the power to tax so as to “provide for the common Defense and general Welfare” of the country, has long been bitterly contested ground between liberals and conservatives, with conservatives insisting it does not allow the government to do anything it pleases to promote our well-being and liberals insisting it does.

The conservative position, going back to James Madison, has been to restrict the application of that clause to the very limited “enumerated powers” of government, like coining money and punishing piracy.

But, ladies and gentlemen, no politician is going to win votes in Rotterdam Junction by denouncing “Obamarelief” or any such ogre after the disaster we just saw.

So the General Welfare clause gets interpreted as narrowly as possible when it comes health care and as broadly as possible when it comes to flood relief.

Why, Rep. Gibson, as conservative as they come, actually voted to double President Obama’s requested appropriation for FEMA this year. Obama asked for $1.8 billion, and the Republican-controlled House, including Gibson, voted to make it $2.7 billion and then added another $1 billion in emergency aid.

So these principles are malleable, and I don’t want you to take them too seriously when you hear candidates trumpeting them.

Ideology is one thing, and practical political life is another.

Categories: Opinion

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