How Hurricane Sandy Downgraded the Election and Upgraded Our Barn-Raising Spirit

People wade and paddle down a flooded street as Hurricane Sandy approaches, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in Lindenhurst, N.Y. Gaini
People wade and paddle down a flooded street as Hurricane Sandy approaches, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in Lindenhurst, N.Y. Gaining speed and power through the day, the storm knocked out electricity to more than 1 million people and figured to upend life for tens of millions more. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Hurricane Sandy may have been downgraded from Category 2 after it barreled through the Caribbean, but it sure didn't feel like it. What was unmistakable, though, was how quickly and completely Sandy downgraded our election. What had been a Category 5 story was suddenly a mere Topical Disturbance. As Sandy moved in, the election was almost literally moved off the map, as both candidates canceled appearances. Instead of huddling with David Axelrod and David Plouffe, Obama was huddled with disaster preparedness and relief officials in the Situation Room -- the one in the White House, not the one on CNN.

People went from checking the New York Times' Nate Silver every five minutes to hanging on to every word of Weather Underground's Dr. Jeff Masters or Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, whose predictive models carried much more immediate weight than who was going to win the Wal-Mart moms vote. And early voting was canceled in Maryland.

But Sandy didn't just knock the campaign off the front pages; it transformed it, as well. At a moment of extreme polarization, Mother Nature brought us together. Suddenly, the artificial walls that our political process erects to separate us into little demographic micro-groups to make us believe we have no mutual interests got blown away by the massive hurricane. As if to emphasize how interconnected we all are, it turns out that the full moon -- the one we'd have seen last night if the clouds would have let us -- was in league with the hurricane to amplify its effects.

Hurricane Sandy brought about the true bipartisanship our leaders only give lip service to. Suddenly, in a campaign in which the biggest issue, broadly defined, has been the role of government, nobody is saying: Why is government involved? Governors in the affected states aren't asking the "job creators" for help -- they're asking the federal government. And the government -- that is, the American people -- has been thankfully responding. Suddenly it's much easier to see the purpose of government -- to make our collective power more effective.

In New Jersey Chris Christie, the same governor who gave the keynote speech on the night of the RNC devoted to slamming Obama's statement that government has a role to play in helping people build businesses, praised President Obama for his readiness to send aid to New Jersey and wisely chose not to limit New Jersey's options for help to resources within the state.

"[President Obama] called me last night around midnight... to ask what else could be done [and] offered any other assets that we need," said Christie. "I have to say the administration, the president himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far. We have a great partnership with them, and I want to thank the president personally for his personal attention to this." Earlier Christie had asked the president to give the state Federal Disaster Designation in advance of the storm so aid could begin to flow -- a request the president granted.

And it wasn't just the federal government, but state and local governments that were responding to protect the lives and property of their citizens. In New York, nearly 400,000 people were evacuated from flood zones, and the subways were shut down (a laborious process that can take up to ten hours) for only the second time ever. The Department of Homeless Services stepped up their efforts to encourage those living in the streets to come into the shelters. The Virginia National Guard got the go-ahead to bring up 500 troops to help clear roads. And state and local utilities along the East Coast readied thousands of repair crews to help the millions who have lost power.

Then there were the warnings that reminded us that government deployed real human beings who made a life-and-death difference, and that our responsibilities flow both ways. "If you don't evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Even more blunt, or "poignant," as Dr. Jeff Masters rightly put it, was this warning by the National Weather Service in New Jersey:

"If you are reluctant [to evacuate], think about your loved ones, think about the emergency responders who will be unable to reach you when you make the panicked phone call to be rescued, think about the rescue/recovery teams who will rescue you if you are injured or recover your remains if you do not survive."

We can no longer summon the bipartisanship needed to rebuild our infrastructure, or even adequately repair what we have, but at least we can come together to protect it from the worst -- if we're absolutely forced to by a calamity like Hurricane Sandy. But why can't we have this same responsiveness in times other than natural disasters? It was only in February of last year that the Republicans proposed a bill to cut $1.2 billion from President Obama's budget proposal for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates the satellites that allow us to track hurricanes like Sandy and give accurate and timely warnings. And in a debate during the primaries, Mitt Romney was asked if FEMA should be shut down and disaster responsibility given to the states. His reply:

"Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?"

Does that include disaster relief? asked moderator John King.

"We cannot -- we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all."

The Romney campaign responded Monday that Romney wants to "ensure states... have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters." Maybe Hurricane Sandy reset the Etch-A-Sketch (it doesn't take much of a storm to do that, after all). In any case, as Matt Yglesias points out, Romney's budget in fact has steep cuts in everything that's not defense. And if you exempt Medicare from Romney's across the board cuts, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that would mean cuts of around 53 percent in things like FEMA.

But for the moment, we're having a period of bipartisan agreement -- forced on us by something truly bigger than ourselves -- that government is useful. Whether or not "you built that," if a hurricane knocks it down, it's nice to have FEMA help you rebuild that.

Unfortunately, this spirit of bipartisanship is projected to last only for about 72 more hours or so, before burning itself out and dissipating somewhere over Canada.

Which is too bad, because we badly need bipartisanship and collective effort not just to rebuild our infrastructure and solve problems like the jobs crisis but to address the root causes of what makes storms like this one so increasingly powerful and increasingly common.

But our election season is drawing to a close without any serious discussion about climate change. "The irony is that the two presidential candidates decided not to speak about climate change, and now they are seeing the climate speak to them," said Mike Tidwell, director of Maryland's Chesapeake Climate Action Network and author of the 2006 climate change book, The Ravaging Tide. "That's really what's happening here. The climate is now speaking to them -- and to everyone else."

Michael Mann, physicist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State says that, while we can't conclusively blame any one storm on climate change, "we can see that climate change is playing a role in setting the context for these storms, in particular the record levels of North Atlantic ocean warmth that is available to feed these storms with energy and moisture." And according to research by the German reinsurance company Munich Re, there's been "a nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America for the past three decades." Last month, a report issued by Yale and George Mason universities found that 74 percent of American people believe that "global warming is affecting weather in the United States." And that was before Hurricane Sandy.

The collective effort, the we're-all-in-this-together spirit, has been great to see. We know that spirit is there, even if we hadn't seen it much in the weeks leading up to this disaster. But it shouldn't take a natural disaster to make us tap into our natural humanity. Let's hope that spirit can linger, even as Sandy moves on.

And in the meantime, here is a page we've put up for anybody who wants to lend a helping hand.

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