FEMA Running Out of Money? Blame Obama!
May 29, 2011 • 9:07AM

On Sept. 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy wreaked havoc on New Orleans, La., flooding three-quarters of the city and lashing it with 160 mph winds, leaving a few hundred thousand people homeless and devastation in its wake. Within 24 hours of the storm's landfall, President Lyndon Johnson was on the ground in New Orleans to see the devastation for himself. At one point, his motorcade stopped and Johnson entered a school that was being used as a shelter for people who had lost their homes. "It was a mass of human suffering," Johnson's diary records. "They were crowded into the school with their families gathered around them. Calls of 'water-water-water' were resourced (sic) over and over again in terribly emotional wails from voices of all ages." Johnson told Buford Ellington, who was director of the Office of Emergency Planning, to get water to them immediately. Before he left to return to Washington, that evening, Johnson told reporters that he intended to "cut all red tape and place New Orleans on top priority in getting aid to them."

Four days later, on Sept. 14, Johnson called Robert Phillips, director of the Government Readiness Office within the Office of Emergency Planning. Phillips had already been on the ground in New Orleans directing government relief efforts and acting as a spokesman for the administration. "As I said the other night when I was there, we've got to cut out all the red tape," he told Phillips. "We've got to bear in mind that we exist for only one purpose and that's to the greatest good for the greatest number. And the people who've lost their homes, people who have lost their furniture, the people who have lost some of their crops and even their families are not going to be very interested in any individual differences between federal or state or local agencies." Johnson ordered Phillips to "bring to these people the kind of assistance they need in this emergency which is worthy of a great government and a great people."

Fast forward to May 2011. Joplin, Mo., is devastated by an EF5 tornado, killing at least 139 people and laying waste a six mile swath of the city. This disaster is not on the scale of a major hurricane, but nonetheless the people there have been traumatized and need help and resources to recover. Where is President Obama when this need arises? He's in London kissing the butt of the English Queen, promising that he'd be there in a week's time.

Even worse, the Joplin tornado is only the latest in a series of severe storms that have killed over 500 people in a broad swath of the southern and central parts of the United States, causing hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars in damages to homes, businesses, local government infrastructure and cropland. All this comes on top of massive flooding along half the length of the Mississippi River, from Illinois down to New Orleans. FEMA is on the ground in the disaster areas, but has no resources for the long term recovery of these areas. Why not? Because Obama hasn't asked the Congress for any! That's the only context in which to understand the shenanigans going on around a $1 billion supplemental appropriations bill to replenish FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund in the House of Representatives. Were Obama capable of leading, as Johnson did in 1965, and Franklin Roosevelt earlier, there would be no vacuum by which House Republicans could take advantage of these emergencies to impose their own ideological views on the budget process. Instead of mobilizing the full power of the federal government to meet these disasters, Obama is giving Americans the Haiti treatment.