Opinion: Hurricane Tea Party, an Ill Wind

R. William Potter | September 1, 2011 | Opinion
There's something very wrong when the extreme right comes out against trying to save lives

The backbiting from the extreme right has already begun.

Most New Jerseyans, even those flooded out, can breathe sighs of some relief that Hurricane Irene was not worse. Meanwhile, the antigovernment crowd is busy blaming FEMA, Gov. Chris Christie and other officials for wasteful, job-killing, excessive preparations for the storm.

You’d think that the deadly debacle of Hurricane Katrina — which swept through ill-prepared New Orleans six years to the day before Irene made landfall — would have at least muted accusations that the government can do no good (except when it’s protecting tax cuts for millionaires).

You’d be wrong.

In a mass email, the keepers of the Liberty & Prosperity website write in bold letters “New Jersey government, not the hurricane, caused the most damage to the Jersey Shore.”

Citing the “mandatory government evacuation orders,” the unidentified blogger claims Atlantic City casino losses of $45 million and that “none of the two-dozen people killed by the storm would have been saved by the mandatory evacuations…. Why did government kill so many jobs for so little reason?”

For so little reason?

FEMA analysts and experts at other agencies — real experts not the “truthiness” kind popular on some cable outlets — were tracking Irene 24/7, amazed by its size and power.

Should these professionals have ignored the evidence, as the hurricane neared the East Coast, that pointed to one conclusion: Irene was turning into a Category 2 or Category 3 storm with wind speeds of 150 mph and storm surges of more than 10 feet, which threatened to inundate low-lying areas from the Carolinas to New England.

The email goes on to print an essay by Seth Grossman expanding on this bizarre screed against taking rational precautions when there was still time for them to be effective. (Grossman is an Atlantic County attorney, co-founder of the state’s Tea Party and supporter of arch-conservative Republican Steve Lonegan.)

In his essay “soon to be posted” on websites, Grossman rakes the Christie administration and FEMA over the coals for ordering vacationers off the beaches as early as Friday, when “Hurricane Irene was still 1,000 mile and two days away.” “Here in New Jersey, he observes, it was a calm and sunny beach day.”

Grossman goes on to compare Irene with such historic killers as the Galveston hurricane of 1900 or Hurricane Andrew of 1992. His conclusion: They were really bad. This one wasn’t so bad. And for that reason those government officials who hoped for the best but prepared us for the worst are fair game for a sustained bout of Monday morning quarterbacking.

“Only killer storms like those [Andrew, Galveston, and the like] need mass evacuations,” Grossman continues. “Everyone knew Irene did not come close when we saw TV reporters standing on the beach in North Carolina, not treading water 20 feet deep and fighting 150 mph winds.”

Well, count me among the many Garden State viewers who did not “know” that Irene would not “come close” to the ferocity of those earlier storms, simply because a TV reporter was able to stand — with obvious difficulty — at a beach site as late as Saturday morning.

Curiously absent from all this acidic verbiage is any reference to Hurricane Katrina. The death and destruction it wrought shamed America in the eyes of the world: at best, for our amateurish complacency; at worst, for our disregard for human life — especially among the poor, elderly and minorities.

Gov. Christie — as well as FEMA, President Obama, Mayor Bloomberg, dozens of local officials, and hundreds if not thousands of emergency workers — deserve our unqualified support and gratitude for learning the hard lessons of Katrina.

Better to err on the side of being too safe rather than being eternally sorry. Better to risk the loss of casino gambling and tourist income even if measured in the millions than the loss of hundreds of lives. Gov. Christie was right to heed the warnings from weather scientists and FEMA pros and order sunbathers to “get the hell out of there” while they still could, before it was too late.

Even if “too late” never arrived, it does not mean the warnings and evacuation orders were “job killing” examples of government run amok. Here was government — real people doing real jobs — at its best.

Get over it, Tea Party, and join in the kudos for jobs well done.