As this is written schools are still closed, subways are still largely sealed, thousands of New York and New Jersey citizens have had their homes damaged, demolished or washed away.
To some the real question is: What effect will the storm have on the election? Much of the turf that has been swamped is already politically committed to President Obama by history and temperament. But this horrible disaster, which has personally affected every citizen from Florida to Vermont, shoves in our faces two major questions that remain unanswered, and which have enormous impact on the lives of future generations. The first both parties have ignored, the second is implicit in every debate, whether or not spelled out.
The first, broadly speaking is climate change. Nicholas Kristof writes (Nov. 1): “President Obama and Mitt Romney seemed determined not to discuss climate change in this campaign. So thanks to Hurricane Sandy for forcing the issue.” He reminds readers that three of the 10 biggest floods in Lower Manhattan since 1900 have occurred in the last three years and "The New York City Panel on Climate Change has projected that coastal waters may rise by two feel by 2050 and four feet by the end of the century.” Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed a levee system to control the ocean flow at three key points. This would cost billions of dollars. Who will pay?
Governor Mitt Romney did make one reference to climate change in his acceptance speech; and his tone was one of scorn. Between promising the “protect the sanctity of life” and accusing President Obama of making “an apology tour” to other nations, he paused and said: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise . . . is to help you and your family.” [emphasis Romney’s]
The second, related to the first, is the relationship between the federal government and the people it governs. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson begins “Romney would pass the buck on disasters.” (Oct 29). He cites a June primary debate in which moderator John King pointed out that he as a reporter had recently visited communities affected by severe weather and noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] was “about to run out of money.” Some argue, said King, that “the states should take on more of this role.” Romney replied, “Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Given the national debt, Romney asked, “what are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do?”
King asks, “Including disaster relief, though?” Romney added that the federal investment would be “immoral” because the cost would increase the debt, which “our kids” would have to pay.
In Robinson’s interpretation Romney was clearly saying that even under the present circumstances of Sandy “the federal government should abdicate the task of responding to natural disasters.” Since Tuesday the broader media have recalled the debate statement that Romney would “privatize FEMA” and pursued it. A long CNN report, “Disaster relief: Obama, Romney differ on federal role,” (Oct 30) reports that Romney “showed little inclination to address the matter” and ignored shouted questions from reporters on whether he supported FEMA’s role in disaster relief. Finally a Romney spokeswoman stated that states should be the first responders, and this “includes help from the federal government and FEMA.” Meanwhile New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, praised Obama’s response as “outstanding.”
This one issue is morally important because it addresses the question of whether each of us is “an island unto himself,” or a member of an inexorably interlinked interdependent community. I lived for ten years in New Orleans and grew to love it. Katrina should have taught us that everyone from Maine to Seattle is also a citizen of New Orleans, Jersey City, the Jersey Shore, of every city rich or poor in America and entitled to our tax money when they need it. Sandy should drive that message home. If we, as persons or a nation, shirk our responsibility for those who need us no matter where they may live, we will shrivel up and spiritually die.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.