As Hurricane Irene pummeled the East Coast this weekend, flooding homes and businesses, knocking out power, and killing at least ten people, Texas Congressman and Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul asserted that the federal government should not help with disaster recovery. Americans, Paul said, need to "transition out of the dependency on the federal government." He implied that federal disaster assistance was something new. "We should be like 1900," he said. "We should be like 1940, 1950, 1960." Without a doubt, the role of the federal government grew tremendously over the course of the twentieth century. But Paul's imagination of a mythic American past of individual self-reliance is bad history. A brief review of major storms shows that these events have long involved federal help and, in fact, have been catalysts for a more active government.
Let's use Congressman Paul's timeline, which starts in 1900. That was the year a major storm decimated Galveston, in Paul's home state. Because of the failure of existing structures to deal adequately with rebuilding, the hurricane prompted citizens to centralize power in the hands of municipal managers and experts. They wanted to make government more active and useful in times of crisis. The so-called "commission form" of government was a key innovation of the Progressive Era, a period conservatives today look back to as the beginning of the end for local self-sufficiency. Texans at the time, though, celebrated their new sea wall and other improvements they achieved through their newly empowered government.
Paul's next benchmark is 1940, two years after the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 caused the deaths of over 700 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Coming after six years of federal innovation with the New Deal, and as Americans looked nervously to the possibility of a second world war, response to the storm appeared to be an important test case for American power and efficiency. President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized New Deal stimulus programs like the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Youth Administration to help with local recovery efforts. "Private community effort is not contradictory in principle to government effort," Roosevelt told the nation, "whether local, state or national. All of these are needed to make up the partnership upon which our Nation is founded."
In 1950, Congress passed the Disaster Relief Act, allowing the President to authorize federal agencies to offer direct assistance to state and local governments. In the same year, Congress passed the Federal Civil Defense Act, creating a national system of first responders for disasters. Both of those mechanisms helped when Hurricane Audrey struck the Gulf Coast in 1957. Almost the entirety of Louisiana's Cameron Parish, on the Texas border, was washed away by a tidal wave. Hundreds died. Experts came to study the damage as a proxy for nuclear war. But the amazing thing is that with the hard work and tenacity of local people -- and the efficient coordination of local, state, and federal resources -- the Parish rebuilt in under a year. In the 1950s, when the federal government was engaged in massive infrastructure programs (think of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway Act, or urban renewal), rebuilding was considered a federal prerogative.
By 1965, when Hurricane Betsy became the first American hurricane to cause over a billion dollars' worth of damage, even intransigent southern politicians, who for decades had fought against federal involvement in their states because they rejected federal civil rights initiatives, had come to see the importance of the federal role in disaster relief. Louisiana Governor John McKeithen testified before a Congressional subcommittee that his state had seriously weighed its chances with seceding a second time after civil rights legislation passed, opting not to only because the federal government had the atomic bomb. But the active federal response to Betsy gave him and his fellow Louisianians a more liberal perspective:
Americanism in our State... has... been reawakened and revitalized because here, when we got in trouble, no fault or no suggestion was made, 'well, you people have been talking down there about States rights: you can take care of your own problems, go on and do it.'
Paul's predecessors representing the Gulf Coast in Congress lobbied for Small Business Administration loans and then federal forgiveness for those loans. They lobbied for millions of dollars in flood protection, and a national flood insurance program. They jumped for all kinds of federal largess, and in the midst of the Great Society impulse, the nation obliged. Gov. McKeithen said, "it reminds me of a large family where they squabble among themselves; then one member of the family gets in trouble, well, they all just get together just like that." Louisiana, the Governor said, "shall never forget it." A half century later, Congressman Paul has.
Federal disaster relief programs have their faults. The National Flood Insurance Program, originally designed to force homeowners to take financial responsibility for living in flood plains, has encouraged development in unsafe areas. So too have federal levee and flood control programs. Mounting reams of regulations and bureaucracy have slowed federal help and brought many undesirable outcomes. Six years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, nobody on the Gulf Coast or beyond would look back at the government response to those events with satisfaction. Though the federal government has spent unprecedented amounts of money, citizens continue to struggle to rebuild. FEMA, needless to say again, did not do a heck of job. But even those flawed programs helped millions of people.
As a democracy, it is essential that we keep vigilant watch to make sure the balance of individual and collective responsibility stays in order. Congressman Paul is right that the federal government has grown, and not always in ways that are helpful. He is also right to look to history for a better way. But he needs some better history. Rather than being moments of self-reliance, disasters are times when Americans have looked to each other, and to their national community, for support. Unlike Ron Paul, most Americans historically have seen storms as times to widen our capacity for national cooperation. These events have broadened the popular understanding of the basic tenets of citizenship. They remind us what government is, or might be, for.