Hurricane Katrina will be associated forever with the fate of New Orleans, even though the catastrophic storm also devastated other parts of the Gulf Coast.
Superstorm Sandy, on the other hand, truly was a regional disaster of immense proportions. There was no true ground zero, no epicenter, no one symbol of the storm’s devastation. Breezy Point, Midland Beach, Seaside Heights, Fire Island—these and so many other communities, from the Jersey Shore to the five boroughs to Long Island, suffered terrible losses that respected neither political jurisdictions nor geographic boundaries.
What’s required, then, is a regional approach to the reconstruction that will follow in the months and years to come. New York and New Jersey cannot find themselves in competition with each other for federal assistance. Nor can they afford to be on different pages in their approaches not just to rebuilding, but to rebuilding for the new and undeniable reality of extreme weather patterns.
There is reason to wonder if political officials on both sides of the Hudson are prepared to act in concert as they take their reconstruction plans to Washington. Indeed, there is reason to wonder if officials are talking to each other at all.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that New York will ask for $30 billion from the federal government to pay for reconstruction is ambitious and perhaps even justifiable, although the price tag immediately inspired grumbling from Capitol Hill. All the more reason for New York to present a united front to decision-makers in Washington. But it seems uncertain at best if other New York officials, including those who represent the state in Congress, were consulted and briefed on the state’s proposed aid package.
New Jersey has yet to come up with a number for Washington, although it figures to be ambitious as well. Gov. Christie has already laid the groundwork for his eventual request for federal aid by noting, rightly, that New Jersey (like New York) sends far more dollars to Washington than it receives in the form of various federal programs. Mr. Christie made the point when NBC anchor Brian Williams asked the question that many in Washington will ask when these aid requests come to Capitol Hill. Why, Mr. Williams asked, should taxpayers in other parts of the country pay to rebuild the Jersey Shore?
New Yorkers can expect similar questions about Mr. Cuomo’s sizeable request. New York, as some will have noticed, is not always high on the list of Washington’s priorities. Spending here will be subjected to the skepticism of powerful Sun Belt members of Congress who associate the city with waste and inefficiency, and, in any case, are not necessarily advocates of projects that benefit mass transit instead of highways.
President Obama’s welcome commitment to both Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Christie will not translate into effective, smart reconstruction unless both states can articulate their goals and, more to the point, lobby effectively for them. The White House may feel our pain, but Capitol Hill is not known for its empathy for the region. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan conducted a one-person crusade for years to bring attention to the yawning gap between the revenue New York sends to Washington and the federal spending returned to the state. According to several estimates, New York receives just 80 cents for every dollar it sends to Washington. New Jersey gets even less—about 61 cents for every buck the state dispatches to the federal treasury, according to the Tax Foundation, a tax-policy think tank.
So it’s clear that Washington is happy to take the region’s money but is not so keen on returning it. All the more reason why New York and New Jersey need to act in a coordinated and effective way as they formulate their plans and present their requests to Washington. More to the point, officials in both states ought to be communicating with each other, and with their colleagues—even if they don’t like each other. Gov. Christie will never apply for membership in the Frank Lautenberg Fan Club, and it is accepted wisdom that Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg get along about as well as Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Koch did in the 1980s.
Personal rivalries, bi-state competition and bureaucratic turf wars simply have to be subsumed to the reality that adequate federal help is hardly the no-brainer it ought to be. With federal spending certain to be slashed drastically in the coming years, skeptics will be more than happy to seize on ill-prepared funding requests, or on contradictory messages from the region’s officials.
Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Christie need to talk to each other, to their colleagues, and to their colleagues’ colleagues.
For all of the sympathy extended to our region in recent weeks, the real test will come when Washington is presented with a bill for its share of post-Sandy reconstruction.
If you think Washington will simply write a check, well, think again.