In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and a snowy Nor’easter, grassroots rescue and support endeavors across New England came to the rescue. They presented a vivid contrast between the sluggish response of a government bureaucracy and the helping hand of neighbors and community groups that comprise the bedrock of our nation’s civil society.
As stories of the recent emergency response demonstrate, the passion-fueled response of personal, on-the-ground outreach effectively and efficiently met the needs of communities. On the other hand, some efforts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were stymied when it encountered stumbling blocks.
As Heritage’s Matt Mayer has repeatedly explained, FEMA’s resources continue to be spread too thin. The agency is increasingly called on for numerous small, local disasters across the country that deplete the agency’s resources and make preparation for a truly large or national disaster more difficult.
This inability to adequately prepare for large-scale disasters haunted FEMA’s most recent response to Hurricane Sandy. As families watched the projected path of the hurricane on their television screens, immense stocks of water and pre-packaged meals sat stalled in warehouses in Georgia and other states rather than being moved closer to the site of the storm’s landfall before disaster struck. FEMA’s first solicitation for food wasn’t posted until three days after devastation struck New York and New Jersey. Bidding on an order for more than 2 million gallons of bottled water would go on for another day.
Later, as the Nor’easter approached, FEMA made early decisions—but, sadly, on behalf of the agency rather than the people: At least 10 FEMA offices in the hardest-hit areas were closed “due to weather.” This is a tragic irony, given that the agency’s raison d’être is disaster response.
Throughout this tragedy, the response of churches, community organizations, and neighbors was inspiring. Volunteers stationed near one closed FEMA office continued to hand out supplies. While thousands of families remained without temporary housing or heat two weeks after the disaster, in even the earliest days of the tragedy, residents north of 40th Street in Manhattan who still had power took in people who had lost theirs.
Church community halls and gyms teemed with donations that had been rushed in from across the country. These included more than 2,500 boxes of coats, winter clothes, diapers, and other supplies from Mormon congregations in D.C. and surrounding areas, which hundreds of volunteers sorted and loaded into five 26-foot trucks.
The immediate responses of neighbor-to-neighbor outreach in the first hours of the disaster were nothing short of heroic. In the devastated Belle Harbor community of New York City, one man created a lifeline from twine, rope, extension cords, and lamp cords that families clung to as they escaped from a raging fire through torrential flood waters in the streets. Another man moved through chest-high waters, shepherding two women—with a toddler on his shoulders—to safety.
Another Belle Harbor resident, who was out of the state when the hurricane hit, drove for 20 hours to the devastated community in his truck, which was loaded with generators, pumps, and supplies that he had maxed out his credit card to purchase.
In the heightened stakes and dramatic tension of this recent disaster, the civil society entities that sustain our communities and embody its character rose to the fore while a lumbering FEMA was hindered by a lack of preparation and perseverance. With much-needed reforms that focus the agency on preparation for truly large disasters, FEMA can play a helpful role in maintaining order and providing resources during catastrophic events.
Government agencies should also recognize the profound national resource of local civil society institutions during disasters. They should partner with the unofficial first responders in churches, community groups, and neighborhoods to more effectively respond to victims’ needs.