News & Politics

The 5 Dumbest Right-Wing Reactions to Hurricane Irene

Government planning and preparation helped keep Irene's damage from being even worse than it was. No wonder right-wingers are going nuts.

As Hurricane Irene leaves the East Coast behind, residents are assessing the damage.

While some areas, like big cities on the Eastern seaboard including New York, suffered perhaps less destruction and danger than expected, inland mountainous regions like New York's Catskills and nearly all of Vermont suffered terrible devastation and flooding. Many people lost their homes, while buildings from century-old covered bridges to giant ski lodges were destroyed. Several towns remain cut off from the outside due to roads being turned into rivers.

In addition, the AP reports that "Hurricane Irene led to the deaths of at least 27 people in eight states," not counting Vermont which is still reporting at least two dead and several people missing as of mid-day Monday.

So while the storm took a slightly unpredicted path, the projections of devastation, precautions taken by government officials, and media blitz undoubtedly saved lives and paid off. The response to the storm, and the relative public calm during it, is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence we have that government works. From early warning systems and federal safety guidelines to updates provided by the National Weather Service and emergency funds that will come from FEMA, state, local and federal agencies protected people, alerted people and are now helping mitigate and repair the damage from a major weather event.

So why, then, is it no surprise that comments and positions from the glib to the evil to the downright bizzarre have already been proliferating in the media, feeding into right-wing frames about goverment not being a good thing? Here's an example: the Beltway media's dismissal of "Hurricane Irene Hype." Media critic Howard Kurtz took to the Daily Beast to bemoan what he claims was overblown media attention to Irene, surmising that because of the need for ratings and the need for government officials to appear competent, this weekend it was all Irene, all the time on TV. I don't know about Kurtz, but personally I tuned in every few hours to actually find out what I was supposed to do, whether I could leave my apartment, and whether my friends and relatives were in the storm's path (I also saw other world events being covered in the media, including on cable TV).

Kurtz prompted a furious response from Brad Friedman, worth reading including depressing pictures of the damage in New York and Vermont which was occurring while or after Kurtz's glib wrap-up piece was filed on Sunday:

Really, Howard, I am sorry that your reliably regular Sunday morning show on CNN was preempted this morning and you were unable to bring us important planned coverage, including "NYT’s Tom Friedman on lame political coverage; the media scrutinize Rick Perry, and the breaking of UMiami’s football scandal," as 14 people had already inconveniently died by showtime today from the hypehurricane.

Without the serious media attention given to the incoming storm --- featuring, as usual, the standard sensationalism that all corporate media, including CNN's Sunday morning shows, routinely bring to the news every single day --- it's likely that many more lives would have been lost.

While it's true that the cable news shows were being sensationalist, I don't think the people who lost their homes were inclined to agree with the over-hyped claim. And the statistics bear out, too. Nate Silver also crunched the numbers to show that the media "hype" was directly proportional to the damage.

For once, the 24-hour news cycle served us well. As for the government wanting to appear competent, it's highly likely that the government wanted to be competent, and avoid the disaster that arises from being incompetent, as it was in 2005 with Katrina.

More insidious than this posturing is the fact that dismissive rants like Kurtz's feed into conservative talking points that try to twist the real practical usefulness of government into something negative or wasteful, as the examples below show.

1) Rush Limbaugh indeed sounded a lot like Kurtz when he said that "the media" had been engaging in "hysterical reporting on Irene. They couldn't wait for this storm..." he said on his show. Meanwhile, he averred that Obama was "hoping this was going to be a disaster" so he would have an "excuse" for the sagging economy.

"This one just didn't measure up," said Limbaugh of the storm. "The hysterical reporting on this hurricane has exposed the media to many people who might not have really noticed it before." Exposed it as what? Loud? Concerned? Limbaugh completely dismissed legitimate concerns--and though his comments are always extreme, they inevitably are a signifier of what's going to bounce around the right-wing echo chamber for days and weeks to come. One need only look to the way the Republicans in Congress are discussing the storm to see that attacking Obama for blowing its threat out of proportion--and attaching it to the economy-- is going to be a pattern.

2)This brings us to the fact that Eric Cantor and John Boehner's budgetary nitpicking continues right through these disasters. After the earthquake last week which hit his own congressional district, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made an anemic statement declaring that if "monies" were needed for relief, "monies" would have to be taken out of the budget, ending a longstanding bipartisan tradition of rushing relief funds through without budgetary quibbling. As Irene advanced, Cantor's behavior prompted this response from Louisiana Congressman Rep. Cedric Richmond on Huffington Post:

 "It is sinful to require us to cut somewhere ... in order to provide emergency disaster assistance for American citizens" ...

"I have been one who has been preparing for the hurricane, trying to give people some comfort. One thing they need to know is the federal government can come to their aid," Richmond said. "I don't think we're in a position, given the rules set up by the majority, that we're going to be able to come to their aid quickly."  

As FEMA runs low on funds due to an unprecedented number of big and small natural disasters this year (many worsened by the climate crisis), it will be important to watch and see whether the GOP really does haggle over Irene relief, and how many Americans have to suffer for it, or whether a fear of seeming utterly indifferent will prevent an extra-nasty measure of fiscal extremism.

3) Fox News talking heads: "Do We Really Need a National Weather Service?" The NWS was on the case, providing information all weekend long, helping predict the path of the storm every few hours as conditions changed constantly. Nonetheless, two pundits at Fox News' Web site decided to take this timely opportunity to call for its abolishment on the grounds that it interrupts local programming with news that purports to save lives, or something.

Steve Benen takes this line of thinking down: "The Fox News piece touts private outlets, including AccuWeather, without alerting readers to a key detail: these private outlets rely on information they receive from the National Weather Service. Indeed, the NWS makes this information available to the private sector for free, since the NWS is a public agency and the data it compiles is public information."

Again, NWS is an example of government producing information the public relies on, which freaks conservatives out, apparently, so they choose to attack these vital institutions just as millions of Americans are counting on them for their safety.

4) Ron Paul's extremist take: abolish FEMA. If abolishing the National Weather Service isn't enough, then how about getting rid of FEMA? Ron Paul has advocated that, explaining that digging yourself out of disaster is good for the national character. Paul pointed to the Galveston Texas, hurricane of a century ago--one of the most gruesome disasters in American history, in which hundreds of bodies were brought in by the tide and burned on the beach--as a good example of American do-it-yourself wherewithal.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates said of the unapologetic race-baiting Paul, "Ron Paul's thoughts on FEMA, like his thoughts on black people, are the spoutings of a nihilistic reactionary."

And Amanda Marcotte warns us to take Paul's ranting seriously, because it pulls the Republican narrative much further to the right: 

He runs out and denounces efforts to keep people alive and idealizes a situation where 8,000 people died. That gives other conservatives space to demand a defunding of FEMA and National Weather Services, because hey, at least they aren't open[ly] praising a situation where thousands drown to death. Also, by focusing attention on 1900, Paul can distract from people comparing the excellent government response to Irene with the piss-poor government response to Katrina.  

5) Michele Bachmann: God did this so we'll reduce spending. At a rally in Florida, while people were still bracing themselves against Irene, she had this to say:

"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."

Whether or not this remark was in jest, it was, as Julianne Escobedo Shepherd noted, "callous," unfeeling and out of touch.

Sometimes in these dire emergencies, it can feel like damned if you don't, damned if you do. If the government assumed the storm would blow over and did nothing a la "Heckuva job, Brownie," the damage might have been unimaginably worse and government inaction and inattention would justly be blamed.

But because there was a "better safe than sorry" approach that relied on government spending, even from Republicans or fiscal conservatives like New Jersey's Chris Christie and NYC's Mike Bloomberg, these agencies are now being mocked and ridiculed by the right wing and even those in the center.

If you hear someone taking this position, show them pictures of roads being washed away in Vermont and remind them that if there had been no calls for evacuation, no media announcements, no government involvement, no rescue squads at the ready, there would have been a lot of people on those roads.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.