This week marks five years since Superstorm Sandy swept across New Jersey and New York, and many communities are still trying to return to normalcy. If we do not learn the lessons from our earlier mistakes from Sandy and even Hurricane Katrina, Houston, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and California may have the same story. Years, miles and regions apart, their experiences expose the work still necessary to improve our federal disaster response.
When disaster strikes, Americans expect Washington to set aside partisanship and get to work. Instead, this administration has focused on unfounded and inappropriate criticism about the Puerto Rican government rather than ensuring a prompt and adequate response.
For more than a month, Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have continued to live without reliable access to food, water and electricity, and await a $36.5 billion relief package from Congress.
We’ve seen photos and videos of victims of these storms coming out and clearing roads to facilitate their own rescue and relief.
Because each disaster has unique challenges, it is essential that the federal government remain flexible in addressing the specific needs of the community affected. For example, in Puerto Rico, FEMA’s requirement that local communities obtain supplies from regional distribution centers has imposed a significant burden at a time when there are already immense logistical challenges.
Without the federal government taking immediate steps to do more to bring aid directly to those affected, many Americans will go without basic necessities for a significant amount of time.
Dissent from my colleagues due to growing cost of disaster aid is misplaced. Emergency aid is a matter of life and death. Relief for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is not foreign aid; these are American territories, American communities, American lives at stake.
Unfortunately, as the focus shifts from initial response to rebuilding, these voices against assistance are likely to grow louder. Nonetheless, Congress still holds the responsibility to provide ample resources and thorough oversight to ensure agencies and local authorities distribute those resources equitably and promptly.
In New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy, we saw Gov. Chris Christie use aid ineffectively and far too many residents went years without needed assistance due to an overly burdensome FEMA claims process. Congress cannot manufacture excuses to withdraw resources from emergency response aid but must instead double down on engagement toward critical rebuilding.
Five years since Sandy made landfall, the effects continue to impact New Jersey. We can’t control when or where the next hurricane, earthquake or wildfire may strike, but we do know that our nation is unmatched in our ability to provide resources in the event of a disaster.
That duty must extend, without hesitation, to all Americans to limit loss of life and injuries, protect and rebuild homes and communities, and make sure Americans get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible.
Watson Coleman represents New Jersey’s 12th District and is a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.