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The Sad State of Disaster Relief

Former presidents are cajoling individual Americans to donate for relief. Maybe they should lobby Congress instead.

President Donald Trump throwing paper towels to hurricane victims during a visit to Puerto Rico.

President Donald Trump throwing paper towels to hurricane victims during a visit to Puerto Rico.

Five former U.S. presidents recently came together to raise money for hurricane relief for the victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. This generous, bipartisan act is one of true generosity and statesmanship.

And yet, as former presidents, all five men know that there’s another way to help hurricane victims, or victims of any natural disaster. The federal government can quickly provide far more in money, personnel, and resources to help disaster victims than even the most generous outpouring of donations by Americans.

Congress recently approved $36.5 billion for disaster relief. That’s nowhere near enough given the scale of the crises from California to Puerto Rico. And further funding is going to run up against a GOP plan to cut $1.5 trillion worth of taxes — about 80 percent of which will go to the richest 1 percent.

It’s a sad comment on the current state of our government, when the current president and Congress aren’t doing enough to help disaster victims using the full weight and power of the federal government, so five former presidents have to cajole millions of Americans to give voluntarily.

I don’t want to demean those efforts. If you gave, you did the right thing. The victims of the hurricanes no doubt need your support and appreciate your generosity.

I’ve got only one friend in Puerto Rico and he’s relatively well off. He’s a professor, and he lives in a nice home in the capital, San Juan. He has electricity and Internet, so he’s been posting photos of the damage.

Enormous trees block roads. Buildings are damaged. After a month of clearing debris and attempting to clean up his own home and neighborhood, my friend is depressed. And, with electricity and internet, he’s one of the lucky ones — some 80 percent of the island still lacks power.

My heart hurts for those who are less fortunate.

As much as we complain about the federal government, it has an important role to play in natural disasters. Paying taxes is never fun, but by paying them, we can create a whole that’s worth more than the sum of its parts.

If your home is incinerated by a wildfire in Montana or California, or demolished by a hurricane in Texas, Florida, or Puerto Rico, odds are you can’t recover without some form of help.

The fortunate have insurance. Yet in my home of San Diego, many families who lost homes in past fires found that their insurance didn’t actually cover the cost to rebuild their homes.

Ultimately, if we are to recover from natural disasters in a timely fashion — before victims who survived the initial disaster lose their lives in the aftermath, and before children lose days of school and adults lose days at work — we need each other. We need our government.

Ideally, we need our government for more than just disaster relief. We need it for disaster prevention. The government can buy homes from people who live in places that will repeatedly flood, allowing them to move somewhere else.

It can work to prevent catastrophic climate change so that hurricanes, wildfires, landslides, and other disasters don’t become more severe or more common.

Individual, voluntary efforts are great, and they produce needed relief for disaster victims. But we need something more.

Those five former presidents could probably make a much bigger impact if they joined forces to lobby Congress and the White House to fully fund disaster recovery efforts and to then take the action needed to prevent these disasters from becoming more common.

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It" (2009).

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