12 November 2012

Monday Infographics: Storm Politics

Some believe that Hurricane ("Superstorm") Sandy and the early recovery efforts may have influenced the US presidential election. After all, Sandy made landfall in New Jersey late in the day on 29 October 2012, affecting much of the mid-Atlantic and New England seaboard, and Election Day was just a week later on 6 November. Some have decried an apparent poor performance of forecasts and warnings from our own NOAA NWS National Hurricane Center. Infrastructure in the area around New York City will take months to recover from an unanticipated storm surge.

But that's all incorrect. It will take a while for people to recover, and there are still things to be done in an area that remains vulnerable, and that is the recovery process following a natural disaster. But in the meantime, I feel some responsibility to help put a few of these other ideas to rest.

Let's start with the election. The New York Times kept running tallies of results using some great interactive map features that are still available. One of those, which I had not seen in previous elections, shows the swing of a county's overall vote from one election to the next, using a vector to indicate the shift from Democrat to Republican or vice versa. This is a screenshot of the map; you can go to the New York Times site for the fully-interactive version.

If I am reading this correctly, the bulk of counties in the vicinity of Hurricane Sandy's landfall and in the disaster zone (much of New Jersey and parts of New York and Connecticut) actually shifted in the Republican direction. President Obama still won those states, but at the level of individual counties he did not come out ahead by as wide a margin as in the 2008 election. In fact, both Independent and Republican candidates gained ground, to the President's expense. I suppose it's possible that voters were holding the President accountable for a response and recovery effort that was just getting started, and had already made FEMA assistance and recovery funds available in the affected areas, but that's only fair. In fact, FEMA recover funding made available to affected individuals is just about to cross the $500 million mark.

I grew up in one of those affected NJ counties, went to college in another, traveled all over that region, and have seen first-hand what a hurricane can do to the New Jersey coast and the New York metro area. If the voters wanted even more from the President within just the first week after the storm, they would be hard-pressed to find any candidate more willing, eager, and proactive in disaster response than President Obama was this year. Given Mr. Romney's earlier statements on the utility of FEMA, I seriously doubt he could or would have done any better in this (or any other disaster) situation. According to him, disaster relief is "immoral," so that just might have left the Northeast on its own to work through this recovery period. Instead, New Jersey Governor Christie praised the President's efforts, and New York City Mayor Bloomberg endorsed President Obama just prior to the election with a statement that was largely focused on the need to address climate change issues, even after that subject was not at all breached in the three Presidential debates this fall. Nevertheless, the Northeast US moved largely toward the Republican side with their votes. To add irony to such an insult, the very FEMA director who was responsible for the poor response and recovery following Hurricane Katrina in 2003 actually had the stones to criticize President Obama's rapid response efforts.

So maybe it wasn't just the Presidential election, but other races were affected? No. In almost every other race for US House of Representatives or the US Senate, the incumbent was re-elected throughout the northeastern states. The races for both houses went almost entirely as predicted well before Hurricane Sandy was a (potential) factor. Even that fundamentalist in Georgia who Republican leadership assigned to the US House Science Committee got re-elected! And of all things, he ran unopposed! If we're going to raise the level of discourse in this country on rational subjects that are necessary to our future, and bring the politicians back to task, instead of oppositional strategies and consensus-killing tactics, we cannot let things like that keep happening. If American's truly and honestly wanted to see some kind of change in the way the politicians are doing things in Washington DC, we sure didn't use our votes to show it.

As a result, the Democrats retained the majority in the Senate, and the Republicans retained the majority in the House. The legislative branch remains split just as before, the President has not changed, and so there's little left to guess about how much positive and progressive legislation we can expect from the next two years of Congress. We had a chance to make things better, to make better things, and to right some of the wrongs where the last Congress failed to act, but I just don't see that the American people took that opportunity to give the President or Congress a mandate on rational planning for the country's future.

This may seem like a rant on the outcome of the election, but let me assure you, I'm glad that it all turned out the way that it did. It's almost as if we didn't need an election day at all. Things in the White House and Congress were not very different on 7 November from where they were on 5 November. And all of that has convinced me of this: government is not going to get done what we need to see happening in this country to prepare for the future. I needed this kind of election, at this time in my own life, to help me recognize that the faith I placed in various groups, my faith in our elected representatives to address reality, my faith in government administrators to get it right, and my faith in the electorate to educate themselves and make reasoned judgements on Election Day, has been misplaced. It also helped me recognize that I've not relied enough on the power of my own voice. Now, I'm not (and have no desire to become) a politician, and it's not my place to tell Americans how to vote. I realize fully that my blog is not influential in that subject, and in this particular election it's too late for that anyway. But I can see and talk about what's wrong with the way things are now, and I can talk about the ideas that are already out there for fixing the problems, and I can make a better effort at educating the electorate so that better decisions are made.

Some have said, through the recovery effort, that Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for a number of things that have been neglected in our own country: better planning for disaster events, better protection of our infrastructure, greater resilience of our urban centers of commerce, and a national and participatory conversation on climate change. Perhaps. But even more specifically, a number of discussions and debates were mooted by these election results: Interior Department policies, EPA effectiveness, infrastructure renewal and protection, a national water policy, energy policy and subsidies, recognition and action on climate change... Now, to be sure, the need for reform in all of these areas is still there, and was not cut down by this Election Day's results. However, the discussion (if any) up to now on these topics has been rendered as mere prologue to the opportunity that we now must face, which is to get some real work done.

Given the way our country just voted to maintain the status quo, I don't expect the government to do all (or, really, any) of those things on behalf of American citizens. And this is not a case of simply waiting for the next election in 2014, for a shift in the balance of the US House, for the President's administration to wake up to some of the issues that have gone untreated. Those of us with a voice need to raise the level of discussion and debate on our own. We call those in Washington DC our leaders, but they're not. They're our representatives, and they're supposed to be taking their marching orders from us, not the other way around. I'm starting to think that maybe this is why I have a blog. Discussion is welcome.

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