At first, it didn't seem so bad. Irene came ashore in North Carolina a Category 1 hurricane, not the Category 3 hurricane meteorologists had predicted. And in many areas along the Eastern seaboard, including Washington, D.C., it seemed to be little more than a big rainstorm.
Then the worst of it hit -- in upstate New York and Vermont, where the most serious destruction was caused, not by the winds, but by the heavy rains and historic flooding. And, within days, Irene -- with losses expected to exceed $7 billion -- had been ranked by the Insurance Information Institute as one of the 10 most costly catastrophes in American history.
But, as powerful as she was, Irene didn't just leave death and destruction behind in her wake. She also left a powerful lesson -- which some politicians are too pig-headed to understand.
That lesson is clear for all to see: FEMA does a good job. We have a moral obligation to help our neighbors in distress. And there is an important role for the federal government in time of natural disasters.
That lesson is clear for all to see -- except blind tea partiers like Ron Paul and Eric Cantor. Paul, whose hatred of government knows no bounds (except when it comes to cashing his own federal paycheck), wants simply to abolish FEMA. "I don't know how anybody could defend the inefficiency of what went on in Katrina," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper. Which is an absurd comparison.
Yes, FEMA's response to Katrina was abysmal, but the agency has vastly improved since. Barack Obama is no George W. Bush. Craig Fugate is no Michael Brown. And FEMA today is far better equipped and organized than FEMA was then. As Fugate told us at a White House briefing, FEMA learned from Katrina: "You can't wait until you know how bad it is before you get ready."
Cantor takes a different, but equally diabolic, approach. He wouldn't shut down FEMA, he would just bleed it to death. First, he's already sponsored legislation in the House, which, as Senator Mary Landrieu explains, would cut the agency's budget by 6 percent and slash funding for first responders by 40 percent. On top of that, he now proposes conditioning FEMA funding on simultaneous, necessary cuts in other government programs. In other words, Cantor is telling victims of Irene: We won't help you recover from getting wiped out by the hurricane unless we first cut your Social Security and Medicare.
No state suffered more hurricane damage than Vermont. And nobody expressed more outrage at Cantor's cold-hearted response than Vermont's Senator Bernie Sanders. "To say that the only way you can come up with funding to rebuild devastated communities is to cut back on other desperately needed programs is totally absurd," Sanders told the New York Times. Whenever there's a natural disaster, he pointed out, we come together to help each other. "That's what being a nation is about."
But, of course, Cantor was not always an apostle for offsets. Under George W. Bush, for example, neither he nor John Boehner demanded cuts in other programs to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Not even for disaster relief. In 2004, Cantor in fact voted against an amendment by Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling which would have "fully offset" the cost of disaster assistance for Tropical Storm Gaston. He then demanded and received $20 million in offset-free disaster relief funds for his own congressional district.
In one of his more idiotic statements, Glenn Beck called Hurricane Irene a "blessing" -- because it might inspire people to stockpile three months of emergency food supplies. But, surprisingly enough, Beck may turn out to be right, although not in the sense he intended.
Hurricane Irene will, indeed, prove to be a blessing if it shakes America free from this absurd, tea party, anti-government rhetoric we hear so much of today. Isn't it obvious, after Irene? The federal government has a very important role to play. In so many ways, we need it. We depend on it. And it's worth paying taxes for.
Those who disagree are free to vote for politicians who share their anti-government views. However, when disaster strikes again, the rule should be: No FEMA dollars to any districts led by tea partiers -- who hate government but are the first to stick their hands out for federal help. Let them practice what they preach.