The Case for Comprehensive Disaster Relief

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Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

By: Sergio M. Marxuach
Public Policy Director

This hurricane season has been particularly bad with major storms hitting Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands, and several Gulf states. Total damages are estimated to exceed $200 billion. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) is doing the best job it can with the resources it has at its disposal, but it is clearly reaching the limits of its capabilities. Under the American constitutional system, only Congress has the authority to enact a comprehensive relief and reconstruction package to address this situation.

The devastation in Texas, Florida, the United States Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico has been well documented. The destruction of public infrastructure and the loss of private property affect millions of US citizens. A well-financed, broad-based recovery and reconstruction program would provide a much-needed boost to economic activity in these heavily damaged areas and help many hard-working families get back on their feet.

In the case of Puerto Rico, it is particularly important that the relief bill approved by Congress include the $4.9 billion emergency liquidity facility requested by President Trump. That funding is essential for Puerto Rico. A municipal or state government shutdown on top of the damage already wreaked by Maria would be positively catastrophic for the island. Relief efforts would come to a standstill, cleanup of heavily damaged areas would stop, and the potential for epidemics and other public health threats would increase exponentially. This would only lead to increased migration to mainland, which would only further weaken an already anemic economy and erode the island’s tax base.

In addition to disaster relief, funding will be required for rebuilding and improving the damaged infrastructure in the disaster zones. It would be extremely difficult to jumpstart economic activity in the affected areas without this additional recovery funding. Some critics may complain that earmarking federal tax funds for these specific areas is unfair to taxpayers in the other areas of the country. But this thinking is myopic and ignores the fundamental principle upon which the union was founded: e pluribus unum—out of many one.

While today federal help is largely targeted to those jurisdictions affected by hurricanes, tomorrow it could be for wildfires in California, for tornadoes in the Midwest, or for blizzards in New England. Therefore, it is in the interest of every Governor, Senator, and Representative that the federal government always be ready, willing and able to lend a helping hand in the event of a major natural disaster.

Furthermore, helping disaster victims is completely consonant with the immortal, life-affirming values that shaped and forged this great union. Helping the weak, the downtrodden, the ones that have lost everything they had, should have nothing to do with income, wealth, party affiliation, race, ethnicity, or even paying taxes. It is about treating each individual with the essential dignity and respect she deserves as a human being. In short, it is a matter of acting with basic human decency. It is our sincere hope that Congress will be up to this task.

This column was originally published on The Hill on October 16, 2017.

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