Hurricane Irene makes case for taking action

Posted: Sep. 1, 2011 7:41 am Updated: Nov. 29, 2014 4:16 am

THE BUDGET-CUTTERS on Capitol Hill were conspicuously quiet in the run-up to Hurricane Irene, shelving their dislike of big government while a large and slow-moving storm put at least 50 million Americans at risk.

Those who believe big government can do no right kept silent when big government swung into action. The much-derided Federal Emergency Management Agency prepositioned 18 disaster-response teams on the East Coast and stockpiled food, water and communications equipment.

The Coast Guard moved more than 20 rescue helicopters and reconnaissance planes into position. The Pentagon set aside 20 more helicopters. And about 100,000 National Guard troops were put on standby.

The White House, in advance, prepared federal emergency declarations for eight states so that relief and rebuilding funds could be rushed to those areas.

In a sweeping exercise of government power, states ordered mandatory mass evacuations of coastal communities and low-lying areas. On Saturday, New York City shut down its entire public transportation system.

The nation hung on the words of the National Hurricane Center, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce that budget-cutters once proposed to kill.

In the end, Irene wasn't as powerful as predicted, though it caused at least 44 deaths in 13 states, wrecked tens of thousands of homes and left about 2 million people without power.

Legendary hurricane forecaster Max Mayfield, now retired from the center, said, "This is a gold-medal forecast. I don't think there's any doubt: I think they saved lives."

Mayfield praised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for spending the extra money on additional surveillance flights and weather balloons that paid off in better forecasts.

Some House Republicans, led by Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky, have called on the Obama administration to replenish FEMA's disaster-relief accounts because the level of funding had fallen to where the government couldn't provide financial aid to disaster victims. FEMA administrator Craig Fugate the agency has less than $800 million left in its disaster coffers.

The Associated Press reports that the total losses from the storm along the U.S. Atlantic Coast -- including damage and expenses incurred by governments -- are likely to be about $7 billion, according to Jan Vermeiren, CEO of Silver Spring, Md.-based risk consultant Kinetic Analysis Corp., which uses computer models to estimate storm losses.

The bad news is that hurricane season runs three more months.


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