Political Animal


May 01, 2011 9:15 AM Competent, effective government still exists

By Steve Benen

COMPETENT, EFFECTIVE GOVERNMENT STILL EXISTS…. In general, the ability of government agencies to respond to a natural disaster only draws attention when agencies fall short. The media tends to look for “the next Katrina” to demonstrate that feckless bureaucracies and government incompetence are the new norm.

But they don’t have to be, and with an effective administration, they’re not. The New York Times has a report today on the emergency response in the Southeast, where the death toll stands at 349 people, with most of the victims in Alabama. It is the deadliest natural disaster on American soil since Hurricane Katrina, but in this case, the governmental response is earning praise, not condemnations.

Top federal officials, including Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, were in touch with [Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley] shortly after the tornadoes landed Wednesday, according to a timeline from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA officials contacted the White House about the need for a federal emergency declaration even before Alabama had submitted a formal request that evening, said Art Faulkner, the state’s emergency management director. It was quickly granted.

Mr. Obama spoke to Mr. Bentley, a Republican, on Wednesday night and to the governors of four other affected states on Thursday. He sent the FEMA administrator, W. Craig Fugate, to Alabama on Thursday. Five members of the cabinet are expected in the state on Sunday. […]

By late Thursday, Mr. Obama had signed the disaster declaration for Alabama, and later did the same for Georgia and Mississippi…. As of Friday afternoon, FEMA had placed liaison officers in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, according to a spokesperson.

In Alabama, as in other affected states, the White House was winning early praise from state, local and Congressional leaders of both parties.

President Obama and the First Lady were also on the ground in Alabama barely 40 hours after the storm struck.

One local resident, whose house was obliterated by a tornado, told the NYT, “It ain’t like Katrina. We’re getting help.”

What’s more, Kevin Drum notes some larger context: “Under Bush Sr., FEMA sucked. Under Clinton, FEMA was rehabilitated and turned into a superstar agency. Under Bush Jr., FEMA sucked again. Under Obama, FEMA’s doing great and responding quickly. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to politicize natural disasters. Not when that politicization makes Republicans look bad, anyway. So I’ll just let you draw your own conclusions from these four data points.”

I don’t imagine we’ll hear much about the Obama administration’s response in the Southeast; the media tends to only find these stories interesting if the government is failing instead of succeeding.

But it’s worth keeping in mind anyway. If it’s important when a federal response falls short, it’s worth appreciating what competent governance is capable of.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • c u n d gulag on May 01, 2011 9:20 AM:

    I'm sure that FOX will try really, really hard to find something to bitch about.

    Like, maybe, the government was too efficient, overspent, and that we all need to get more tax breaks.

  • John B. on May 01, 2011 9:35 AM:

    It's a dilemma: as with all else that functions when and as it's supposed to, competent governance goes unremarked-upon until it reveals itself to be incompetent. It's a Good Thing that competent governance is taken to be the default setting, but the irony is that it becomes harder to get people to take notice of competence, to get them to think about the alternative and do what they can to forestall that (read: vote for those candidates that actually care about competent governance).

    So, I'm glad to see the Times noting that things are working as they should in the Southeast. It's just going to put all this on a bumpersticker.

  • Danp on May 01, 2011 9:36 AM:

    the media tends to only find these stories interesting if the government is failing instead of succeeding.

    Wrong conclusion. The media heaped lots of praise on Gen. Honore during Katrina and Giulliani after 9/11. The question is what exactly did either do to deserve mention?

  • DAY on May 01, 2011 9:40 AM:

    There are philosophical differences between the Republican and the Democratic views of government response to disaster.

    The one rushes to help, regardless of social status, color, or income. The other, before rendering assistance, asks to see your Voter Registration Card.

  • FRP on May 01, 2011 9:43 AM:

    Governor Rick Perry certainly has contributed one of the more puzzling responses .
    Fer sure

  • kevo on May 01, 2011 9:45 AM:

    If people of all stripes could find good jobs, pay into fair tax systems, become educated, openly debate the issues before them, accept their neighbors as Americans, use empirical measures to set policy, promote a common good through common sense, and wish to contribute to their respective communities, then our current political death spiral may be stemmed!

    Ah, but I ask too much of my fellow Republicans! -Kevo

  • JCT on May 01, 2011 9:46 AM:

    But, govt is inherently bad!

  • jpeckjr on May 01, 2011 9:57 AM:

    Incompetent leadership was not the only issue at FEMA under GWBush. When it was merged into Homeland Security, its mission changed from natural disasters to responding to a terrorist attack -- a homeland security issue. Disaster victims could rely on private resources like the Red Cross, many other nonprofit relief agencies (most of them faith-based), and private insurance.
    FEMA had to help secure the homeland!

    After Katrina, FEMA went back to responding to natural disasters. Congress significantly changed FEMA's authorization after Katrina. When a whole town has been decimated by a tornado or flood, public responders -- local, state, federal -- are the only ones that can mobilize sufficient resources. Homeowner's insurance may pay a claim, but they don't have bulldozers to clear the street that leads to the house.

    My personal contact with FEMA field staff following a flood in my community in 2007 left me with the highest admiration for these very compassionate and very capable federal employees.

  • SaintZak on May 01, 2011 10:01 AM:

    Wow, and I bet the people of Alabama will rember this when they vote in 2012....yeah, right

  • martin on May 01, 2011 10:10 AM:

  • john sherman on May 01, 2011 10:49 AM:

    Now that Olbermann is off the air I don't suppose anyone will do it, but I'd like to see someone in the media do a bunch of before and after clips of southern Republican governors saying (a)that the federal government has cooties and better stay out of our way because they can't do anything right and if they keep messing with us we'll by God secede and (b)thank you, thank you for all the help because you saved our butts.

  • FRP on May 01, 2011 11:13 AM:

    john sherman your talking my language

    DAY , you forgot preening for the camera crew

    There are philosophical differences between the Republican and the Democratic views of government response to disaster.

    The one rushes to help, regardless of social status, color, or income. The other, before rendering assistance, asks to see your Voter Registration Card.

  • Davis X. Machina on May 01, 2011 11:33 AM:

    It ought to be at least as sexy to work for FEMA as to be in the Marines.

    Or at least as sexy as the Jeffersonian Institute.

  • DocAmazing on May 01, 2011 11:45 AM:

    As long as we're not politicizing natural disasters, do you think that this might just get the good people of the American South to acknowledge the existence and effects of global warming?

  • Ocotillo on May 01, 2011 11:58 AM:

    I realize I am politicizing a disaster but nonetheless......

    Would Pat Robertson please explain why God targeted these individuals for death and destruction? He seemed to know why during Katrina.


    Would someone mind rerunning for the good folks in the southeast the old John Stossel commentary about how government has no business helping in these disasters and how price gouging is moral and justified in a free market.

  • rrk1 on May 01, 2011 12:01 PM:

    At least they let a black man into their devastated neighborhoods to do the clean up. That's just SOP in the south.

  • engineer's kid on May 01, 2011 3:55 PM:

    I get so tired of people who think the government can't or shouldn't do anything besides national defense, etc. My dad is a retired engineer for the US Interior Dept. His work concentrated on measuring river systems and covered such important issues as dams, flooding, sediment build up, erosion, and pollutants. Which affects the economy of the country - think farm land, cities (those built along rivers), shipping, agriculture, recreation (boating & fishing), drinking water & public health and more. One of his more exciting (to me) projects was working on the river systems affected by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens (most notably the Columbia River, one of the largest and most important rivers in the US) with all of the soil, trees, etc. that were washed downstream. Who but the federal government is going to do this work? Why would anyone argue against all of that?

  • tamiasmin on May 01, 2011 4:41 PM:

    Some people believe that government doesn't work as well as it should; others believe that government shouldn't work as well as it does.

  • Nancy Irving on May 02, 2011 2:25 AM:

    Credit where it's due, Steve. You complain that the media won't cover this "good news" story, all the while you're quoting from a NYT article telling the good news. You might at least have tipped your hat to the poor old despised Times.

  • Bob on May 02, 2011 6:52 AM:

    For me, the money quote is:

    "David Maxwell, the emergency management director in Arkansas, where 14 people died in storms and flooding this week, said that Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, reminded him on Friday that it had taken FEMA three weeks to deny a disaster-relief request after a 2007 tornado. 'Now,' Mr. Maxwell said, 'he’s singing their praises so far.'"