Only a few short months ago, Joplin was the place for promises. Everyone from President Barack Obama to FEMA bureaucrats pledged to help the tornado-ravaged city rebuild.
But now Irene is the cause of the moment. Even though the storm inflicted less damage than feared, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is planning to divert money intended for tornado repairs in Joplin and elsewhere to pay for cleanup on the East Coast.
That is simply wrong. A basic expectation of government is to help communities and households get back on their feet after natural disasters. That expectation must not be waived because Republicans in Congress refuse to budge on closing tax loopholes or asking more of the very wealthy or any of the measures proposed to bring revenue into the U.S. coffers.
FEMA officials have said the agency is suspending payments to rebuild roads, schools and other crucial projects in Joplin and other areas impacted by spring tornadoes.
FEMA has less than $1 billion in disaster relief funds. The Irene cleanup cost alone could exceed $10 billion.
In Washington, the disaster looks likely to set off another round of unseemly bickering, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and some other Republicans have signaled that new money for FEMA disaster assistance must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
Holding disaster relief hostage to ideology is callous and foolish. Communities reeling from natural disasters can’t contribute to a healthy economy.
Hurricanes bring the role of government into sharp relief. Residents along the Eastern Seaboard depended on the National Hurricane Center to fly jets into the storm for the latest forecasts. National Guard troops were called in to service.
FEMA had rapid response teams on the ground. State highway patrol officers and local police and firefighters worked round the clock to keep people safe.
Critics who scoff that the response was overblown are mistaken. Taking precautions that prove to be unnecessary is far better than being caught unprepared. It was six years ago to the day that the perils of underestimating Hurricane Katrina were being exposed to a horrified nation.
We need government to prepare for disasters and help with rebuilding. Congress must acknowledge that and get the job done.