September 20, 2018

Hurricane Sandy, FEMA, and the Need for Big Government

The Rabbis teach (Ta’anit 11a) that “At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, ’I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.’” To effectively aid those who are suffering, we need the cooperation and collaboration of each and every individual. We need strong individuals, effective non-profits, and committed states. However, we also need to recognize the most powerful collective body available to address the suffering. In our society, the mechanism that represents the people is the government, and it must be effective. Government does not always have to be big to be effective, but oftentimes it does, especially when responding to disasters on a large scale. 

Hurricane Sandy, which struck the east coast in October 2012, was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and the second-costliest, behind only Hurricane Katrina. At least 253 people were killed and an estimated $65.6 billion was lost due to damage and business interruption. For weeks, many in this, the wealthiest country in the world, were suddenly lacking the basic necessities of life, such as shelter, heat, power, and water. The most dramatic damage occurred in southern New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan area. In New Jersey, the historic Seaside Heights roller coaster was carried out into the Atlantic Ocean, where its tangled ruins remain today. Video of the famous Jersey shore area revealed miles of destroyed boardwalks and beaches that had virtually disappeared, along with hundreds of demolished houses and boats. To the north, “>Governor Christie said: “The federal government's response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight…with the president, personally; he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area.” He later added: “The folks at FEMA…have been excellent.” On December 7, “>the importance of investing in this infrastructure now so that we don’t make it more vulnerable later on needs to be high on the priority list, because the damage to us in terms of our long-term economy and competitiveness is really huge.”

Our nation has confronted emergencies before, and the federal government has often been the ultimate solution when the private sector failed. During the Great Depression, the stock market failed, thousands of private banks failed, private charities failed, and when President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, the nation was on the precipice of total failure. President Roosevelt closed all the banks for 4 days, and then announced that the federal government would guarantee bank deposits through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The result was that the banking system (and currency) was saved, giving the economy had a chance to recover, as the American people had a renewed confidence in their government and its roles and abilities in helping people. The private sector had no plan; government was the solution.

A profound midrash (Bava Batra 10a) teaches about how humans are not in control over nature.
He [Rabbi Yehuda] used to say: Ten strong things were created in the world—A mountain is strong, but iron cuts through it. Iron is strong, but fire can make it bubble. Fire is strong, but water puts it out. Water is strong, but clouds contain it. Clouds are strong, but the wind can scatter them. Breath is strong, but the body holds it in. The body is strong, but fear breaks it. Fear is strong, but wine dissipates it effects. Wine is strong, but sleep overcomes its power. Death is stronger than all of them. But Tzedakah saves from death, as it is written, “And Tzedakah saves from death.” (Proverbs 10:2)

When nature, death, or other forces overcome us, the best thing we can do is fight back with tzedakah (with love, kindness, and charitable giving). We must all do our part as individuals and we need strong non-profits and state-level responses, but we must also unite to support a stronger federal government that is best equipped to address crises wherever and whenever they strike. This is the essence of America: to be united in both our times of need and times of hopes, our traumas and our triumphs.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of “>Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly