Hurricane Irene and politics done right

Hurricane Irene came and went, but not without leaving a major impact. Properties were destroyed, people were killed, and homes were flooded. New York City closed its public transportation system for the first time in history and evacuated over 370,000 of its citizens. Before the storm hit, eight states had declared states of emergency, with President Obama weighing in with added measures on some states, such as North Carolina, New Jersey and New York who were anticipating potentially greater risk.

News media organizations were on high alert. It seemed no other event was taking place on the planet. Citizens showed great discipline and cooperation as many were asked to leave their homes. By the end of the weekend, the hurricane had been downgraded to a tropical storm, but still left an estimated billions of dollars in damage and destruction.

Despite the damage, most believe that the worst was averted, with the storm losing its punch as it moved inland up the coast. Still, expect some critics to claim that the media overhyped the dangers of Irene, officials overreacted, and politicians like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie used the potential crisis to restore their respective images following the criticism they got during a major snow blizzard last December. Bloomberg and Christie seemingly anticipated the possible criticism by arguing that safety and prevention were their primary concern, not politics. Having experienced the extensive security measures first hand, I believe that the politicians, irrespective of party affiliation, got it right.

Make no mistake about it: Hurricane Irene packed a wallop, but crisis prevention had a lot to do with avoiding a greater castastrophe and a greater loss of life. There are some who are quick to criticize the role of government, but this was government service at its best. Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul actually called for the abolition of FEMA, the organization responsible for emergency management of homeland disasters, the very day the storm was heading to shores of North Carolina. Talk about poor timing! FEMA may have failed during Hurricane Katrina, but the lessons learned since then have brought greater effectiveness, as we saw this weekend.

As for the political class, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, a Republican, and Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, both found a proper balance between calling on people’s sense of individual responsibility and putting the resources of government at play. President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano showed similar wisdom. Sure, Irene was not as bad as predicted but the politicians came through when it mattered.

After the unfortunate debt ceiling debate of this summer, during which the American electorate found its political leadership as wanting, it is important to acknowledge that this event brought out the best in U.S. leaders—cooperation and a sense of priorities. The political leaders understood it is better to overdo prevention than play catch-up when catastrophe hits.

[John Parisella is currently serving as Quebec’s delegate-general in New York City]

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