During the weekend, about 80 members of Missouri Task Force 1 waded, walked and wandered through the rubble left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
On Long Island and in Freeport, N.Y., the trained first responders, most of them firefighters and medical personnel, some of them engineers or water-rescue specialists, looked for signs of life. It’s the same thing the group did after the devastating Joplin tornado last year. It’s what the Boone County-based rescue team did after Sept. 11, 2001, at ground zero.
The task force is one of 28 such teams based in states all across the nation. The teams are funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The groups save lives. They help communities survive and rebuild.
They are essential.
And they would face devastating cuts under the proposals put forth at various times by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
This is why elections matter.
When disasters occur, and they appear to be occurring more and more frequently, government gets to work.
“New York City taxes itself and spends the money to protect us and to have the services that will keep us going. And I know of no other city that does that. Which always annoys me when they say, ‘Oh, you’re a high-taxed place.’ Yeah, and we get something for it.”
Missouri Task Force 1, along with similar FEMA Urban Search and Rescue groups from Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, New Jersey and Maryland, are part of what those taxes pay for.
The task forces are housed in local fire district facilities, funded in part with state revenue. Some of the equipment is paid for by donations. And when disaster strikes, FEMA picks up the tab.
So when politicians such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., suggest that the federal government can’t increase FEMA’s empty coffers — as he did when Joplin was most in need — taxpayers and voters should consider the devastation, the razed neighborhoods, the scores of dead and ask themselves: Isn’t this what government is for?
The simplistic debate that some Republicans want to have about cutting the budget — cut here, cut everywhere (well, but not defense), cut now — too often ignores the real effect of those decisions. Rhetoric during a heated political season often isn’t real.
Hurricanes are real. Wildfires are real. Tornadoes are real.
So, too, is climate change, even though neither of the presidential candidates spent much time talking about it during this election.
There will be another Sandy, another devastating fire in the west, another Joplin. There will be floods and earthquakes. We just don’t know where and when.
So all of us must hope that local, state and federal disaster programs are well-funded and well-coordinated to help the victims, wherever they may be, dig out and rebuild once again. This is our nation’s history, our commitment to shared sacrifice, our belief that in some ways, we are our brother’s keeper.
When President Barack Obama and Gov. Jay Nixon traveled to Republican-dominated Joplin last year to bring state and national attention to the plight of southwest Missouri, they weren’t Democrats; they were representatives of our government, of all of the rest of us, standing tall with Joplin in that city’s time of need.
It was the same this week when Mr. Obama appeared with Gov. Chris Christie, the Republican leader in New Jersey. The two men were not political combatants; they were strong and sympathetic figures, telling people who lost everything that help was on the way.
It was, and is, and should be again.
But Congress must fund FEMA and other branches of government to ensure that’s the case. Our elected officials must be careful when slashing government services, so core responsibilities can be maintained.
We say it again: Political rhetoric is cheap. Disasters aren’t, not cheap in money, not cheap in lives.
For the past few years, FEMA has been fighting for the budget scraps. Our national leaders need to remedy that situation. Fast.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.