It took Super Storm Sandy to remind us how much we need our government. And how rarely we see government leaders truly cooperate.
Cooperation has been a dirty word in politics for close to two decades. But in responding to the crisis caused by Sandy, President Obama and Governor Christie showed us that political adversaries are at their best when they work together to meet our needs.
It took an environmental holocaust for this to happen. But as the pictures of destruction in state after state circulated throughout the media, no one talked about privatizing FEMA. No one complained that the government was spending too many taxpayer dollars rescuing people from death.
It was a fine way for the President to end his first term in office – one that may ultimately have won him his re-election. And also won him a new opportunity to collaborate with the states.
In the storm’s aftermath, we understand that one of the prices of having the freedom to live where we desire – Queens or Greenwich, Staten Island or the New Jersey Shore, Hoboken or New Orleans, the West Virginia mountains or the central plains – is that we must protect our living environment.
We understand that no place is safe from sudden destruction. So we need all levels of government – and they need our support – to build better flood berms, hire more first responders, and put in place pumps and sewers to get polluted water more rapidly out of streets, subways, and homes.
And to prevent such catastrophes in the future.
God only knows if Sandy itself was caused by preventable climate change. And it’s not really worth arguing anymore with people who deny what they see with their own eyes – that our weather has changed dramatically over the past few years.
What no one can deny is that we have been lax in our preparation for catastrophe. We have been lax in investing in the infrastructures needed to clean up and repair the devastation. And we have been lax in investing in the infrastructures that can prevent such catastrophic damage in the future.
This time, the crisis was in the northeast. In recent years, the central plains and gulf coast have experienced similarly horrifying environmental catastrophes.
No one knows who will be next. But we all know someone will be next.
So we need to prepare. And this means strengthening our public health infrastructure. That infrastructure:
- Prepares for and organizes our response to natural disasters.
- Makes certain we have access to emergency services.
- Handles pollution control and abatement, decreasing our negative effect on our environment.
- Enforces our building codes.
- Prevents environmental and health disasters every day.
We have let this infrastructure go during the last few years, with deadly consequences.
- Local and state health departments have lost over 55 thousand workers to budget cuts.
- In New York and New Jersey alone, over half of local health departments lost jobs due to budget cuts in 2011.
- Almost one-quarter (23%) of local health departments nationwide have reduced or eliminated emergency preparedness functions.
Robert Pestronk, Executive Director of the National Association of County and City Health Officers (NACCHO), predicted what would happen almost a year ago, when he said “at this critical juncture of dwindling funding and difficult choices, health departments are now doing less with less. Budget cuts and a declining public health workforce challenge their ability to protect the health and well-being of all people in their communities.”
How well the people of Staten Island and scores of other communities understand this now!
Despite the closeness of the election, Barack Obama has a mandate as he enters the next four years. It is to continue the bi-partisanship that served us so well at the close of the campaign season.
And governors like Chris Christie have a new mandate, too – they need to rebuild public health infrastructures in partnership with the federal government, no matter what their Congressional representatives may say or do.
As we continue to pray for our most recent victims, let us hope – for the good of all – that in the coming years our leaders heed these needs, and tackle together all the real crises that command our attention as a nation.
And let us hope that rebuilding the infrastructure that has been devastated as much by budget cuts as it was by Sandy will be at or near the top of the list.
If you would like to arrange for Paul Gionfriddo to speak to your group or organization, or have questions about this column, please send an email to email@example.com.