Be Unprepared: Trump, Hurricanes and the Politics of Cutting Federal AgenciesPhoto courtesy of Getty Politics Features climate change
On March 16th, the Trump administration released a budget proposing significant cuts to socially and ecologically focused government programs while simultaneous allocating billions for defense and other militarized agencies. Of note in the proposed cuts are plans to scale back the research capabilities of the NOAA and its ability to provide accurate storm warning and data collection. Additionally, the Trump administration proposes cutting $667 million in funding for programs administered by FEMA. As global warming threatens to make hurricane seasons erratic and individual storms stronger, it is a move that invites the kind of widespread failure that marked 2005’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
Although not always explicitly stated, it was clear the failures in South Louisiana loomed over each subsequent hurricane season. Not only as it related to hurricane preparedness and response but political decisions made about the funding and staffing of FEMA. But for the Trump administration, the humanitarian crisis in New Orleans in 2005 has been brushed aside for the sake of austerity.
The logic of cutting back on these agencies harkens back to the line of conservatism espoused by Reagan and his administration—namely that government has gotten too big and what gets cut from these agencies were extraneous in the first place. But this kind of fiscal conservatism is predicated on a lie. Government programs are responsible for providing services for millions of Americans at a time; the large size and cost of these agencies is often in line with the amount of people that they need to serve. Obviously, this does not include agencies such as ICE which exert violence against minority populations—but the difference between disaster relief and a deportation force should be obvious. And it is for the latter that Trump, like other practitioners of American austerity before him, plans to be generous with funding. FEMA’s inability to properly prepare for and respond to the aftermath of Katrina—thus severely compounding the crisis—was not because the agency was too big or overpaid.
Conservative-noted inefficiency of government programs isn’t a naturally occurring property of public agencies but the product of political decisions. The Post Office’s arcane prefunding requirements have been part of a years-long effort to create agency insolvency. Insurance companies oppose a nationalized healthcare system—despite the US having some of the highest healthcare costs under the existing privatized system—arguing that national healthcare offers a lower quality of care. FEMA was ill-equipped during Katrina because it had been reduced to a sub-department of the terrorism-focused Department of Homeland Security and faced significant budget cuts, etc. The conditions for poorly run agencies are created, and then the poor state of the agencies is cited as a reason to further dismantle them.
Well-run public agencies represent a threat to privately owned capital—namely, if the public sector can provide services or goods that meet the needs of the people then the concentration of wealth that is a product of privately run industry comes into question. Justifying the kind of inequality created by capitalism through the current neoliberal order is reliant on the Thatcherite belief, “there is no alternative,” being made true. Nationalization alone of course is not purely socialistic but it threatens the monopoly private capital has on the supposed right to manage most of society—it begins to raise uncomfortable questions about the role of the owners of capital. They might be, as Engels argued, “demonstrated to be a superfluous class.”
These kinds of questions are ones that the owners of capital in American society do not want asked. It is to their benefit that instead the debate surrounding public agencies and the services they provide becomes entirely about (created) inefficiency and insolvency—a significantly narrower argument. But at their core these arguments are just class warfare in defense of capital.
Redirecting debate about both public agencies like FEMA or services like Social Security has been so successful that both parties essentially agree on this framing. The Trump administration embraces this dichotomy—inefficacy is regularly invoked as justification for budget cuts—and thus have promised substantial cuts.
But cutting back on agencies like FEMA or the NOAA saves no one and nothing. Financial costs are only deferred and when they come back they will be larger than the initial cuts. Even more disastrously, cutting the budget for FEMA will inevitably incur a significant human cost in the next crisis. 1,800 people died because of Katrina, with estimated hundreds of thousands more who survived rendered completely homeless. And those survivors faced additional hardship with increased rates of anxiety, depression and PTSD. As one Weather Channel event chronicling the ten-year anniversary of the storm reported,
“Nearly everyone weather.com interviewed for this article had a personal story of suicide to tell. Everyone knows at least one person—usually many more—who took his or her own life after Katrina. The data show this as well: Less than a year after Katrina, the city reported that the suicide rate had nearly tripled over pre-storm levels.”
This is the true price of austerity. The brunt of the cost of the decision to cut FEMA’s budget was shouldered by the people in southern Louisiana.
The Trump budget cuts makes the administration complicit if the next storm season ends in crisis. Cutting the NOAA’s budget limits their ability to track and warn people of hurricanes adequately. This dramatically increases the risks of even milder storms as it leaves cities with less time to prepare. Cutting back on FEMA, as was demonstrated in the incredible loss of human life and lingering misery in the wake of Katrina, needlessly draws out recovery from these storms. Taken together, these cuts would leave millions of people along the coast vulnerable. And as with Katrina, those most affected by these decisions will not be the well-off or those who push for these agencies to be cut in the first place.
1,800 people died as a direct result of Katrina. Their deaths were preventable and it is due to the failures of the Bush administration, in their defense of capital and hostility toward public agencies, that made the humanitarian disaster surrounding Katrina possible. The Trump administration’s austerity makes a similar crisis possible on the same scale once again. As the slow-rolling crisis of global warming produces stronger hurricanes and more erratic hurricane seasons the impetus is on us to strengthen our hurricane preparedness and response—not weaken it.