Sandy a New Chance for FEMA to Save Its Own Brand


The arrival of Superstorm Sandy has brought an American brand that plenty like to forget about back into the spotlight. FEMA, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, is generally not heard from as it goes about its business helping people recover from one nasty situation or another.

But when the agency flubs, as it famously did during its disastrous efforts after Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, its name brings in a lot of bad publicity. After Sandy hit American soil and began devastating buildings and lives, FEMA was in action. As if on cue, Michael Brown, the man who had headed the agency during those Katrina days and resigned in disgrace in the month after the storm, appeared in Denver’s Westword magazine to talk about how President Obama had already blown it by meeting with FEMA on Sunday and having a press conference.[more]

His suggestion was that Obama’s meeting was politically motivated (never mind that he also held a press conference at the American Red Cross) and somehow related to the loss of American lives in Benghazi back on Sept. 11. “My guess is, he wants to get ahead of it — he doesn’t want anybody to accuse him of not being on top of it or not paying attention or playing politics in the middle of it,” Brown told Westword. “He probably figured Sunday was a good day to do a press conference.”

Brown’s comments, of course, came across as completely politically motivated. And his name reminded the world of just how poorly FEMA had handled Katrina. Was that what Sandy survivors had to look forward to? Current FEMA director Craig Fugate took the high road, telling NPR’s Morning Edition Wednesday, “It’s better to be fast than late.”

As an added bonus, FEMA suddenly became a political football in the U.S. presidential election. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has advocated many times that the federal government should hand whatever isn’t essential over to states to take care of and explicitly spoke about disaster relief in a 2011 debate. At that point, he told moderator John King, “We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”

While pushing such things to the states would take it out of the federal budget, it has never been clear exactly how the already cash-strapped states would pay for such things other than higher taxes.

Romney stayed quiet on the subject as the storm struck and Obama went about his business making sure Americans were safe, including meeting again with FEMA officials today before heading to New Jersey to survey the damage with NJ Governor Chris Christie.

But then Wednesday, Romney clarified his position on disaster relief: “I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said in a statement, the Boston Globe reports. “As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.”

Of course, everyone has the right to change his or her mind, a situation that Romney is very familiar with since has done so on such things abortion and single-payer healthcare. Flexibility, of course, is a good thing to have as a politician, but one wonders where the people who called John Kerry a flip-flopper are hiding.

Meanwhile, FEMA seems to be getting good press right about now as it goes about its work helping Sandy’s victims. If all stays on course, when President tells Fugate that he’s doing a heckuva job, as President Bush did with his pal Brown, America will nod its approval instead of feel its collective jaws drop open. And that will be good for the FEMA brand.