Opinion: Why Hurricane Irene is a Good Test of "Big" Government

Hurricane Irene is the perfect case study of big government and reality. I teach classes on coastal policy, so I’m interested in how events such as hurricanes impact the discussion about the role of government.

If climate change is progressing as we assume, coastal zones may see repeat performances such as Irene and therefore need to plan long range (not just respond to an incident such as a hurricane). It’s an opportunity to assess political and policy issues on a wide spectrum.

First, low lying coastal areas have sensitive infrastructure including airports, railroad tracks, subway facilities and tunnels, military bases (mostly navy and air force) that all become extremely vulnerable when a huge storm hits the coast. The Air Force moved its airplanes and the Navy sailed its ships out of port.

A Department of Defense (DOD) report  has warned about the risks to critical coastal infrastructure and even suggested moving many of these facilities to safer areas. Of course that’s a monumental task. I was in Texas and Louisiana this spring for a conference and some research and visited the miles after miles of oil refineries, pipelines, gas, and shipping facilities. These are at risk when the weather (or climate) turns sour.

Second, the robustness of local, state and federal government agencies is tested when “normal” suddenly is interrupted. Katrina was a wake up call. Government at every level in the city, the State of Louisiana and of course FEMA failed to perform. Every subsequent incident is a further test of the effectiveness of leadership as well as government coordination in addressing short and well as longer-term consequences of large storms and sea level rises.

Third, these incidents (like earthquakes and tsunamis) test the resilience of coastal power plants, fuel and chemical storage facilities and ports, sewage treatment facilities – all potential sources of catastrophic environmental spills affecting the local ecology for decades.

Fourth, most east Coast beaches are artificial – renourished with sand that is slurried from offshore to restore the beaches after storms. This costs hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. And has to be redone periodically because wave action, severe storms, and wind simply erode beaches. That’s the “life of a beach.” How do fiscal conservatives (the Tea Party?) feel about rebuilding the beaches on the Vineyard, Folly Beach, South Carolina, the Jersey Shore, and along the Gold Coast of Florida at the expense of taxpayers in Idaho and Iowa?

Fifth, these disasters are also a good test of coastal civil society. Does looting take place as the storm hits and after the storm leaves? What’s the public law enforcement action to prevent this? Do people protect their own properties?

Sixth, what’s the follow through? Are sensitive and at risk barrier islands just rebuilt as they were or are there buy-out programs to set aside the most vulnerable places to let nature move the sand and dunes? Are bridges built over breaks in barrier islands (inlets where storms literally cut the island in half)? This is a HUGE issue since the post-hurricane infrastructure rebuild is a massive job and very expensive.

In a year when big government is THE theme for election 2012 this storm could suggest some important insights.

There is nothing to illustrate how much we need effective government than a disaster such as a hurricane. You can rant about how bad Big Government is and argue for cuts in spending, but even the most fiscally conservative person expects the governor and his/her staff to issue emergency orders and take over (Not Microsoft or Wall Street bankers, or even BP.)

They expect the National Guard to turn out, FEMA to be there, flood insurance to help them rebuild (private insurance companies wouldn’t dream of taking such a risk), and a robust first responder system to be available to help injured folks.

After the storm has passed folks want their roads and bridges fixed quickly and count on county, municipal, state, and federal disaster declarations and the huge stream of aid (taxpayer money) that comes with those declarations. I’ll bet even Gov. Christie expects government help if the Jersey Shore is devastated.

Irene may change some of the conversation about the role of government as we move to 2012.

Steffen W. Schmidt, University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy (also Coastal Zone Management) at Iowa State University, affiliate Nova Oceanographic Center, author of 11 books, 40 years analyzing the Iowa Caucuses, Des Moines Register blogger, CNN en Español analyst and commentator and Associate Editor of Insider Iowa