The worst of Hurricane Sandy hit last Monday night. By Wednesday, the media was congratulating everyone on a job well done.
President Obama toured New Jersey's battered coastline and was praised by Governor Chris Christie for his response. New Yorkers, Big Gulps forgotten, rallied around Mayor Michael Bloomberg and chuckled at his press conference's energetic sign language. The press gushed with praise for America's leaders, fired off autopenned columns about how the right's small-government philosophy was finally refuted, and breathed a sigh of relief.
There was just one problem. New Yorkers, as they often do, forgot about Staten Island.
The borough's president, Jim Molinaro, had to attack the Red Cross and call the New York City Marathon "asinine" before he finally got the media's attention. The scenes on the news shifted, from devastated but mostly empty coastal towns to real people who were cold, miserable, starving, isolated. Bloomberg suddenly looked like a callous fool. Obama was in Las Vegas.
The feds eventually arrived, but Staten Islanders say the help was tardy and pitiful. FEMA, which was supposed to distribute 24 million gallons of fuel to New York and New Jersey, is instead presiding over shortages and Jimmy Carter-style gas lines. Where's the fuel? No one seems to know.
This should sound eerily familiar. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, there was a brief period of calm after the storm where everyone relaxed and assumed the government would bring order. It wasn't until days later that the true horror started to emerge: filthy conditions at the Superdome, unused public buses filled with water, looting.
The point isn't to contrast Obama's disaster management to Bush's; Sandy is a very different storm that struck a very different part of the country. It's also not to identify a double standard between the media's coverage of the two presidents, although one surely exists.
The real lesson is that disasters will always wreak havoc. Whatever the policy, whosever in charge, man can't measure up to the destructive forces of nature. Bury the government in money, and bad things will still happen.
That's not to say the feds shouldn't try to save lives. It's also not to say that FEMA should have its funding cut. Most conservatives would agree that emergency management is one of the federal government's legitimate responsibilities. But too many seem to think that if we shovel funding at competent leaders, we'll have spic-and-span disaster cleanup. This reached a feverish point after Katrina when many progressives went beyond faulting Bush's leadership skills and outright blamed him for the entire hurricane.
That's not how it works. Nature doesn't really give a damn.
In the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, New York, a fire ignited that torched 110 homes, leaving a barren field of ash and charred debris. New York's first responders, the best in the world with no shortage of funding, couldn't navigate the floodwaters until the inferno was raging. It was a brutal, achingly human moment.
After the fire ran its course, an Associated Press photographer snapped the most poignant picture of Sandy's devastation. Amidst a hellscape of smoking debris, a statue of the Virgin Mary impossibly still stood.
In this age of computer models and technocrats and whiz kids who think they can calculate the future, sometimes we're reminded that certain things are beyond man's control. Certain things are still the province of God.
Yes, President Obama deserves criticism for high-tailing it to Vegas while New Jersey was underwater. And Mitt Romney's position on FEMA funding should be discussed. But try to make a deep political or policy point about a crushing wall of water, and you're going to come up short.
Take global warming. The hurricane's most noisome parasites were climatologists, the smuggest and most audacious prognosticators this side of Nostradamus, who demanded that we take action to stop climate change -- or "listen" to Sandy, as one Huffington Post writer put it. Of course, if we follow their counsel and they're wrong, we'll have needlessly downsized the American economy… which will, of course, make it harder to respond to natural disasters. But at least those filthy light bulbs will be gone.
Tear down every belching power plant and replace it with a solar panel, and we'll still have hurricanes. Turn the entire federal budget over to FEMA and make its administrator, Craig Fugate, the de facto commander-in-chief, and national disasters will still displace people. Loudly declare that big government is vindicated, and shivering survivors will still emerge wondering why they're not being helped.
Should we "listen" to Hurricane Sandy? If so, maybe the message we hear should be one of humility. May God bless all the survivors and may the dead rest in peace.