As I write this column, three days after Sandy wreaked havoc on so many neighborhoods near my own in Brooklyn, N.Y., the e-mails from my synagogue are pouring into my inbox. Got a spare hour or two? The Temple needs volunteers to make sandwiches to bring to a nearby shelter housing 600 evacuees, most of them elderly. Got corporate connections? The shelter residents need coffee, tea and water — now — in large quantities.
When Mitt Romney made a show of donating canned goods, diapers and granola bars via the Red Cross to the victims of Sandy, political opponents on the left snickered and jeered. What were the devastated families in New Jersey and New York going to do with granola bars purchased at an Ohio Wal-Mart?
These critiques were threefold. First, Romney was accused of making political hay out of a national disaster. See how bighearted I am, these critics perceived him as saying.
“All we’ve seen from Romney and from his surrogates is all kinds of politicizing and misdirection,” James Peterson, a professor at Lehigh University, said on MSNBC, “and I think the American people in this sort of disastrous moment can really see in bold relief the differences between President Obama and former governor Romney.”
Second, these critics asked incredulously, did Romney actually believe that an appropriate disaster response was an ample supply of nonperishable grocery items? (Separately, I wondered whether this is a legacy from his Mormon faith, which puts an enormous emphasis on saving stores of food, water and money for a rainy day.)
Third, and most problematic to many, was the idea that these symbolic donations signaled Romney’s desire to take George H.W. Bush’s “a thousand points of light” to a whole new level — to dismantle the Federal Emergency Management Agency and replace it with some combination of state-level bureaucracies and enterprising charities (including and especially faith-based groups).
Over at the New Republic, Noam Scheiber surmised that “Romney really does believe aiding those in need is best accomplished by individuals and private charities, not the federal government.”
Romney’s response to Sandy’s devastation was completely wrong. For one thing, it is nearly impossible to get granola bars and diapers from Ohio or Virginia to the displaced families in the Northeast that need them most, a fact the Red Cross made perfectly clear when it accepted the Romney campaign’s donations reluctantly and with misgivings. “Cash is king,” says Roger Lowe, a Red Cross spokesman. Financial donations “get the assistance to where it’s needed much faster.” Donations of stuff — especially from people at a distance from the disaster — mean more logistics, more man-hours for sorting and distributing the goods and higher trucking, gas and labor costs.
Also, FEMA, says Peter Gudaitis, chief executive of New York Disaster Interfaith Services, is “an essential organization.” It took its knocks after Hurricane Katrina and may have some bureaucratic inefficiencies, he says. But the work it does, and the massive coordination efforts it undertakes, would be impossible for any other kind of entity to replicate, he says. In the first days after a disaster, FEMA focuses on getting things running again: pumping water out of subway tunnels and getting power back to millions. And then it works to help disaster victims long-term.
“After 9/11,” he says, FEMA “spent tens of millions of dollars in New York City keeping people in their homes and preventing people from losing those homes. I don’t think those kinds of programs could be managed by the private sector or the nonprofit sector any more effectively than they are.”
Since Katrina, recognizing that coordination with faith-based and grassroots community groups needed to be better, FEMA has committed itself to improving and formalizing those relationships.
And here’s where the lefty cynics have it wrong.
The government and religious groups can — and should — work together in a disaster. A religious response is not a weak or sentimental response. In the first 72 hours after a catastrophe, churches, synagogues and mosques have information that the government does not. They know where their members live. They know who’s a shut-in, who’s elderly, who’s disabled. They know exactly whose house has burned down and how many children, and pets, usually live there. They can rally a community, as mine has, to put boots on the ground, feeding people and helping the government understand the scope of the problem.
There’s one more thing religious leaders can do, says Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York. And that’s to see even gifts of granola bars from political campaigners in Ohio as tokens of heartfelt sorrow and empathy.
“Part of the work of being a community of faith in a disaster is to accept other people’s goodwill,” she says.