There's an odd moment in Salon's post-Sandy interview with the SUNY historian Jacob Remes, author of the forthcoming book Disaster Citizenship.
The conversation starts off fine. When the interviewer asks whether Hurricane Sandy makes the case for big government or for big business, Remes replies that it's mistake to think those are our alternatives: "The best disaster relief is offered through solidarity, horizontally, through organizations that people are already members of. Sometimes that's government. Often it's not." That's basically true. As examples of these organizations, he mentions unions, fraternal orders, churches ("I might sound like a family-values Republican here"), and Occupy's networks, which have been doing much-needed relief work under the "Occupy Sandy" monicker. Also true. He goes on to claim that such intermediary institutions are in decline and that Americans are "increasingly isolated." I disagree, but at least we're on the same page about what's needed.
But then, asked to reply to Ian Murray's argument that regulation can hamper disaster recovery, Remes says this:
Without government there is no flood insurance. People who live in flood plains get flooded regularly, so you can't have a normal insurance market, because insurance markets depend on people who buy insurance and never use it. You can make an argument that people shouldn't be living in Atlantic City, or New York City, or New Orleans, but then everyone's going to living in Phoenix, which has its own problems.
The thing about these environmental regulations is that, left unchecked, what capitalism is going to do is build in places and ways that make short-term profits. You fill in wetlands. You build private sea walls that redirect surf and make it worse somewhere else. Government regulation puts a brake on that desire for short-term profits.
See if you can find the tension between those two paragraphs. If you're stumped, read this paper [pdf] from the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU, which explains how "the flood insurance program encourages private development at a rate that is inefficient and unsupported from a social perspective that more fully considers the ecological and financial risks." It also makes a good case that the system disproportionately benefits the wealthy. It does not argue that we should all move to Phoenix: Ecologically fraught beachfront development is one thing, but Atlantic City, New York, and New Orleans managed to exist before the National Flood Insurance Program was created in 1968.
"The National Guard came to us and said you guys are way more organized than we are. They're giving us stuff to hand out. We got over six hubs or collectives. Every twenty blocks, we have a new spot that we're trying to engage with the community at. We're not the Red Cross. We're not FEMA, so it's different. It's grassroots. It's guerilla-style. It's a different kind of struggle, but we're trying," said [Occupy Sandy volunteer Diego] Ibanez.
Muriente also reported seeing Homeland Security patrolling neighborhoods, and told me she witnessed armed Homeland Security personnel in military gear, bulletproof vests and holding long rifles, pull over three young black men in the middle of the dark Rockaway as they walked down the street.
"They basically pulled a stop-and-frisk in the middle of blackout, made them put their hands up, started patting them down, pulling out flashlights from their pockets, and when we confronted them about it, [Homeland Security personnel] said there had been looting," she said. "That's the only time I've seen a government official outside of a vehicle that whole day."