A Storm and an Election

Carl Weinschenk

As a gray, breezy and wet Monday dawned, two parallel stories — one with immediate and one with long-term implications — were readily apparent: A major storm is barreling in on the Northeast and a presidential election is eight days off.

The two intersect, but of course have significantly different back stories.

Hurricane Sandy is the latest in a long line of emergencies during the past decade or so that seem to be growing increasingly dire. Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 are the headliners, but terrible episodes in Joplin, Mo., and elsewhere shouldn’t be forgotten.

Since Sept. 11, the large community of first responders have recognized the importance of advanced communications. They want to fully utilize wireless and video, do so in a universal spectrum and be able to exchange information across the entire range of first responders. Cops want to talk to firefighters, EMS workers with the National Guard. They also want to have access to important data that might be held by private companies: If a building is burning, it helps firefighters to see the floor plan as they are rushing to the scene. A foundation of such a universal approach is to set aside bandwidth on a national basis.

Hurricane Sandy is approaching the East Coast as this post is being written. CNNMoney and Dow Jones Newswires highlight preparations by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. Those stories will be obsolete quickly. A few days from now, it will be apparent whether or not those preparations were adequate — or, in a worst case scenario, if any preparation could have readied the networks for the amount of wind and water Mother Nature rained down on them.

The tie to the presidential campaign is pretty obvious: President Obama and Mitt Romney and the parties that they represent have very different takes on the responsibility of the federal and state governments on responses to disasters.

Romney — and Republicans in general — philosophically favors giving as much power as possible to states. That, clearly, will have a big impact on disaster preparedness if Romney is elected. A Romney administration most likely would de-emphasize emergency relief provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and related agencies. It would provide grants to the states. Coordination across state lines most likely would become more of an issue than it is under Democrats. Conversely, Democrats favor a federalized approach.

In the longer term, the Republican approach most likely would de-emphasize the ability of the FCC and other federal agencies to put nationwide solutions in place. For better or worse, Republicans believe that decision making belongs at the state level.

The point is that the winner of the election next Tuesday will have a big impact on how hurricanes and other disasters — manmade and natural — will be handled. Such issues as setting aside bandwidth on a national basis for first responders will be impacted.



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