Mitt Romney isn’t backing off. He said last spring that the federal government shouldn’t be helping people in cases of disaster. He said it’s immoral, and that he would privatize FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Instead of standing firm in the aftermath of the worst storm ever to hit the Northeast, he just refused to answer questions.
He organized a “disaster relief” rally, where he sold anti-Obama T-shirts and “collected” canned foods for the people affected by the storm (Turns out he bought $5,000 worth of supplies and had people”donate” it back to him). He told the story of how he once helped clean up a football field after a storm, as though that could be compared to what people all along the Northeast Coast are facing. It would have been better if he had just stayed home.
Now, the American Red Cross doesn’t accept clothing or canned goods in the aftermath of a major disaster because people who have just lost everything have no way to open that can of Beanie Weenies, no way to heat it up and no utensils to eat it with.
I have covered major floods and other disasters. I have volunteered to go and help. Believe me, people who came into the Hearts With Hands camp in Ocean Springs, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina weren’t looking for canned goods.
We assembled boxes with cleaning supplies and toiletries — and a Bible. Normally, I wouldn’t think it appropriate to evangelize under these circumstances, but we were in the Bible Belt and the Bible was the first thing most people picked out of the box.
We gave out cases and cases of bottled water, tons of diapers and wipes, towels and washcloths, but no canned food.
We had a mountain of old clothes that we couldn’t use and we had boxes and boxes of canned food that people just didn’t need or want.
When your home has been destroyed and you’re in a shelter — a high school gymnasium or a church hall — you don’t need canned sloppy joe mix; you need counseling, you need assurance that things will return to normal one day. You need a hot shower and a warm bed. You would like some privacy, although that’s not possible.
These shelters are supplied by food stores, government surplus food and restaurants. They have institutional kitchens where meals for hundreds of people can be prepared. Almost always, someone who owns a demolished restaurant staffs the kitchen.
Now, Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King is saying the government should be careful how it spends disaster relief money because people will just go out and buy Gucci bags with it. He claims that’s what happened along the Gulf Coast after Katrina.
I was on the Gulf Coast after Katrina, and I didn’t see any Gucci bags. I did see people being shortchanged by insurance companies, paid pennies on the dollar for the value of their homes so they couldn’t afford to rebuild. Once the land was abandoned, the banks sold it to developers who wanted to build resorts. That’s how the private sector works.
I saw block after block of disaster like I never imagined could happen. I saw x’s on what was left of door frames or concrete steps. In the lower right, if there was a number, it signified the number of bodies found there. I spoke to a school teacher who had driven by the houses of her students and found numbers in the x’s on two of them.
Disaster relief should not be political. This has to be about getting people back on their feet, about helping families get over the trauma and rebuilding devastated communities.
Someone asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie whether he would invite Mitt Romney to come tour the disaster area, and Christie, a Republican, shot back that this was not the time for political showmanship. He is worried about the 2 million people in his state who don’t have power and the tens of thousands whose homes have been damaged or destroyed. He’s worried about the gas leaks that could cause massive explosions and fires.
Then he did something that really surprised me and gave me hope that some things can be seen as above politics: he praised President Obama for being there, for being on the phone with him in the middle of the night and for rushing through the disaster declaration. That took courage in today’s political climate.
Want to know how you can help? Donate to the American Red Cross. They’re experts at working in disasters. Or you can donate to Hearts With Hands (which does accept non-perishable foods), a first-responder agency based here in Asheville.
This disaster will take months, if not years, to clean up. Let’s hope whoever wins this election has the compassion to do the work necessary to get it done.Leslie Boyd, a former newspaper reporter, is president of the health care advocacy nonprofit, WNC Health Advocates, founded in memory of her son, who died in 2008 because he couldn't access health care. E-mail her at leslie at lettersfromtheleft dot com or follow her on Twitter @leftyletters1, visit Letters from the Left on Facebook. For more information about WNC Health Advocates or to read Boyd's health care blog, visit wncha.org.