A Better Kind of Disaster Relief

The new Sandy aid bill highlights two problems—financial debt and ecological debt.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Senator Chuck Schumer declared to his colleagues on Monday. “Ninety-one days ago, Sandy struck a body blow against New York. Today, finally, we can strike back and give our people the help they need to get back on their feet.”

Shortly following, the U.S. Senate passed a long-awaited $50.5-billion disaster aid package that was then sent to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

Superstorm Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, though it was only ever a Category 2 storm at its strongest and had weakened to a Category 1 storm by landfall. Nevertheless, due to its immense size, incredible amount of moisture and record-breaking storm surge, it is estimated to be the second costliest storm in the history of the United States after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Natural disasters will always happen. But tackling climate change—through both mitigation and adaptation—will help keep them from getting worse overall.

The 62-36 vote in the Senate—which barely passed the 60 votes needed to reach cloture—caps off a dramatic saga that saw Republicans in both chambers struggle to support more spending, even in the form of disaster relief. At one point, the drawn-out process caused politicians from Sandy-hit areas, including prominent Republicans, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Long Island Representative Peter King, to unleash a rare firestorm of public criticism at the Congressional Republican leadership.

In the end, only nine Republican Senators joined 53 Democratic Senators to vote for the bill. The earlier House vote was not much better: A mere 49 Republicans voted “aye” while 179 voted “nay.” The bill only passed out of both chambers of Congress because of strong Democratic support.

The surprisingly intense politicking that developed because of the aid bill approval highlights three lessons that are especially relevant as we move forward.

1. If we want to rein in disaster spending, we need to rein in climate disruption.

Climate change may not have caused Superstorm Sandy, but it did make it worse. As I wrote in a previous article, we know that record-breaking storms like Sandy—and many of the other extreme weather events we’ve experienced in recent years—are very much in line with expert predictions for a warming planet. We know that hurricanes feed off warm water and that ocean temperatures along the East Coast were significantly above average this year. And we know that, not only have we done little to tackle global warming, we’ve also done little to prepare for its impacts. Sea levels are steadily rising around the world, and particularly along the East Coast. The most damaging impact from Sandy was the record-breaking storm surge, which happened on top of already elevated seas. The higher the seas get, the more vulnerable our cities and communities become.

Our society is currently burning through both money and natural resources that my generation is going to have to somehow find a way to pay for.

To state the obvious, if Congress is having a hard time stomaching these disaster aid payments, then it really should do something about climate change. And quickly. Because a lot of time has already been wasted, and climate-influenced natural disasters are only expected to get worse.

Disaster relief bills are expensive Band-Aids that address the effects of extreme weather without necessarily doing anything about the causes. Of course, we can’t control all the causes. Natural disasters always happen, and that’s not about to change. But tackling climate change—through both mitigation and adaptation—will help keep them from getting worse overall. And in the big picture, this will save both money and lives.

2. Financial debt is a problem—and so is ecological debt.

Ostensibly the biggest concern among legislators who opposed the Sandy aid bill was that it added more spending at a time when we’re already bogged down by a growing national deficit and debt. As a Millennial, I’m far less than thrilled about the financial debt my generation is inheriting. But I’m equally aware that we’re also inheriting a burgeoning ecological debt.

Our society is currently burning through both money and natural resources that my generation is going to have to somehow find a way to pay for. The consequences of ecological debt include more “superstorms” and all the other humanitarian costs associated with increasing climate disruption. This is not good.

Maybe it’s time for Congress to be more responsible with our future, and for the Republican Party, who claim to stand for fiscal conservatism, to also stand for ecological conservatism.

3. The Church has a role to play in the changing nature of disasters.

The final lesson I take away from the Sandy aid debacle is that the government alone is not the full solution to disaster response or preparedness. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other emergency personnel are critical, but the church has an important role here as well.

Churches are on the front lines of disasters. They are integrated into communities long before disaster strikes and remain in the communities long after all the recovery is over. In times of trouble people often seek refuge in churches, which can offer spiritual comfort as well as physical shelter and nourishment. Churches also often belong to denominations or networks that can coordinate charitable collections outside the disaster zones and direct donations to where they are most needed.

As extreme weather intensifies and becomes more unpredictable, the Church should be proactively adapting to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus wherever the need arises. This is why I’m very excited about Wheaton College’s recently launched Humanitarian Disaster Institute, which is conducting groundbreaking research and bringing together various experts and agencies to offer disaster preparedness and response trainings for local church leaders.

As Superstorm Sandy demonstrated, putting off climate action comes at a steep cost—and one that the government may not always be willing to pay. But we all need to play our part to build the momentum that will turn the tide on our current climate crisis. In the meantime, the Church can and should play an active role in leading the charge for climate action, and in helping communities prepare for and recover from the inevitable impacts of worsening extreme weather.

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