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The Buck Stops Where?

It Wasn’t My Fault!

A Terrible Flood! Locusts!….

With so much going on right now it seems a bit much to have to stick to New Jersey, but two days after I wrote Your Tax Dollars At Work….or Not, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie held the first town hall meeting of his second term to discuss Hurricane Sandy recovery with the hard hit people of the Raritan Bayshore. In a performance reminiscent of Jake Blues plea for mercy in the Blues Brothers, the governor managed to lay the blame for the state’s poor performance in administering Sandy recovery on the Federal Government and the old stalking horse, red tape.  “What happens when you deal with the federal government is the red tape is immeasurable,” he said. Christie went on to blame the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), anti-fraud regulations, President Obama and Congress. As a show stopper, he referred to the new “F” word- FEMA. Interesting words from a man who was preaching personal responsibility at a Republican Governor’s Association event just a few days before.

His denials of responsibility were tantamount to an admission that the recovery process was not going smoothly. However, finding fault with everybody else does little to make things better. Even worse, the lack of any self-critical analysis portends only continued failure as the core issues will never be addressed as long the focus is on blaming somebody outside of New Jersey for the poor performance.  It wasn’t the Federal government that steered recovery money to housing projects in Belleville and New Brunswick that were unrelated to Sandy. The Federal government didn’t hire and spend tens of millions of recovery dollars on politically connected contractors to administer the homeowner’s aid programs that Christie complains are inefficient. One contractor, HGI, was fired for unspecified reasons and given an additional $10 million as a parting gift. The governor, who styles himself as a “straight shooter” dodged questions about the reasons for HGI’s firing at the town hall meeting. It is the NJ Department of Community Affairs that is responsible for distributing the various Federal aid dollars and where the most of the frustration for individuals originates.  There was no mention of anything the state needs to do better. It’s all somebody else’s fault!

Failure to Plan…..

Rough Road Ahead

The problems with Sandy recovery didn’t just crop up overnight. First, the rules and regulations governing  both the NFIP and the various homeowner’s assistance programs were in place at the outset of the recovery process. The inept handling of claims by the outside contractor certainly wasn’t in any way related to the Federal government.  Complaining about measures to combat fraud or abuse is almost comical-particularly in light of the stories coming out of Hoboken and Belleville. The state’s problems originate with the state and its failure to put a rational and measured plan for recovery in place. As they say, the failure to plan is a plan for failure. We are now seeing the results of that failure.

We must remember not to judge any public servant by any one act, and especially should we beware of attacking the men who are merely the occasions and not the cause of disaster.-Theodore Roosevelt

If this were unforeseeable or a singular mistake these missteps could be excused. However, when this is viewed for what it is-a part of a greater pattern of behavior-its time for some accountability from the Christie administration.  Trying to lay blame at the feet of everyone else is not only unseemly, it virtually guarantees that nothing will get fixed. Recovery from a disaster of the magnitude of Sandy is an enormous and incredibly complex undertaking.  Governor Christie was obsessed with the opportunity for power and the chance to burnish his image as a strong leader that Sandy, and its billions in disaster aid, represented. However, he has proven that he and his administration were not up to the challenges posed in this recovery, either intellectually or morally. That may be a tough charge, but it has been earned.

Like any large complex undertaking, this job required vision and planning. Two essential elements that have been completely missing from New Jersey’s recovery efforts. The sin of it is that in anticipation of the enormous and monumental challenges our region was facing, the Federal government brought extraordinarily valuable resources to the area in addition to pledging billions of dollars. Smart, experienced and resourceful people dropped everything they were doing to come to our state to assist in the recovery efforts. They brought years spent assisting in the recovery from disasters all across the country as well as specialized expertise in the various disciplines necessary to effect a comprehensive and successful restoration of our devastated state. They came and worked tirelessly to help New Jersey in its darkest hour. Many of these people represented the agency that Governor Christie derogatorily referred to as the new “F” word. Because of their positions, most of these individuals are people who can’t respond. Perfect targets for a bully looking to deflect blame from his own failings.

Not A Gratuitous Charge

This Recovery Can Go Two Ways

This is not idle criticism. The Christie administration resisted all efforts to guide or assist with recovery  efforts.  They fought to remove all mentions of climate change from the recovery strategy documents. They forbid recovery planners from working with any towns where the administration did not give prior permission. They failed completely in creating a unified and comprehensive vision for either how to recover or what the state should look like in the future. They ignored recommendations contained in the report from the Hurricane Sandy Task Force. Disturbingly, they allowed politics to creep into every aspect of the state’s recovery efforts.

Rebuilding from Sandy is about more than just cleaning up debris and re-constructing demolished homes. Its more than just photo opportunities in a fleece. Proper planning for infrastructure-how it is designed and where it should go-is a basic step. Identification of places that are appropriate for re-building , appropriate for re-building in a modified manner or where we just shouldn’t rebuild at all are essential elements of any intelligent recovery strategy. Identifying innovative measures that include better building codes, the use of natural systems to complement engineered solutions for protection from future storms and the effects of sea-level rise are just common sense approaches that have largely been ignored. Understanding that a coastal state with substantial development in vulnerable areas needs to fundamentally rethink its footprint in places exposed to storm surge and flooding isn’t a radical idea, it’s a foundational building block of responsible government policy. Is it any wonder that an administration that has ignored these essential elements for recovery has also been mishandling the immediate tasks of rebuilding.

It’s Not You-It’s Me

This isn’t about the details of what is missing from New Jersey’s recovery strategy, or more accurately the missing recovery strategy. This is about the failure to take responsibility for the proper administration of the complex and difficult task of disaster recovery.  You also can’t address shortcomings if you don’t recognize they exist, or worse, try to lay blame for those shortcomings on others. It may make for good politics but it has the effect of visiting yet another disaster on a state that still suffering from the effects of Sandy. This one of man-made origins.  Nothing will  improve as long as long as the greatest effort goes into trying to show the blame for failure lies somewhere else.

That’s Entertainment!

The governor’s efforts to save face would have been better spent facing up to the tasks at hand and getting on with the hard work of recovery. The failure, and there is no other word that quite fits the bill, to rationally and intelligently approach the rebuilding of New Jersey after Sandy goes directly back to the governor’s office. The governor wanted control of the process and that’s what he got. Having taken control, when things go awry, there is no honor in ducking responsibility. It may be a way to divert attention from millions of wasted aid, aid spent on projects for the politically favored and mismanagement of the administration of vital recovery programs. However, it doesn’t solve one problem for one person still suffering after the storm. It may make good political theater or play well with the governor’s donor base, but it’s no way to lead. The governor needs to stop concentrating on his image and his political future and start concentrating on the lives of his affected constituents and the future of the state. Along the way he owes an apology to the people who gave their best efforts to help him do that job the best that he could-even if it didn’t fit in with his personal agenda.- Ben Spinelli

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