Cleanup from the massive tornado that destroyed a small town in Oklahoma continued in earnest yesterday, with search and rescue teams scouring the disaster scene for signs of life. As of late Tuesday evening, some 24 people were dead, including nine children.
As clean up crews worked and as new storms threatened the region, officials in Washington began jockeying over the federal response to the disaster. President Obama declared the area a disaster zone Tuesday morning, and said he had already send federal officials to Moore. He said that his administration would provide more assistance as needed.
"The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground -for them, beside them - for as long as it takes," the president said. He added those affected by the storm "will not travel that path alone, your country will travel it with you."
There are an estimated 20,000 people who have been displaced by the storm, and authorities have said they expect the death toll to grow higher than the 24 confirmed dead. (Earlier reports had the total at 51, but that was unconfirmed.)
This destruction and carnage was not enough for Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn to ask for federal aide. He said he did not want it without offsetting spending decreases elsewhere in the federal budget.
"He’ll ask his colleagues to help Oklahoma by setting priorities and sacrificing less vital areas of the budget,” Coburn spokesman John Hart told Politico Tuesday.
Coburn’s principals are rooted in his role as a budget hawk. But he could have made the argument that disaster relief money is misspent. According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, disaster relief agencies like FEMA do not keep an accurate tab of how much money is being spent.
But Coburn’s stance is primarily a political one and takes the risky step of inserting partisan politics into a natural tragedy. And it exposes a schism within the Republican Party over how to handle federal disasters.
On one side are Coburn and his allies, who oppose federal relief for local disasters without cuts elsewhere in the government. On the other are lawmakers like Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican who represents Moore and has served as a bipartisan consensus builder in the past. He has already indicated that he does not require spending cuts to send relief back to his distance.
If the past is an indication, Republicans should tread lightly when inserting politics into disaster relief. Former President George W. Bush’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina poisoned his second term, and he later admitted he should have responded in a different way.
But a more appropriate comparison might be Hurricane Sandy. The storm occurred just before the election at a time when Republicans believed the president was vulnerable. But a forceful response by the president and a glowing endorsement from New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie removed politics from the national conversation while making Republicans look petty at a time of national unity.
Fast-forward to this week. Obama is punch drunk from three scandals and is vulnerable to attacks from the right. But as Sandy illustrated, politicizing natural disasters doesn’t play with the public. Typical Washington tit-for-tat is unlikely to resonate with the public at a time when bodies are still being pulled the debris of an Oklahoma neighborhood devastated by Mother Nature.