The disturbing images of water flooding the streets of Houston are all too familiar for New Yorkers, reminiscent of Superstorm Sandy’s devastating path through the metropolitan area in 2012.
The aftermath of natural disasters often showcases the best of Americans’ neighborly impulses, everyone reaching out a hand to lift someone from the rising tide. But some Americans have a habit of keeping their hands on their wallets. And New York’s congressional delegation has a long memory for that.
Long Island Rep. Peter King, for example, had some choice words for Sen. Ted Cruz, one of 36 Republican senators to vote against a $50 billion Sandy relief bill in 2013. Cruz said the bill was larded up with pork and unrelated spending that didn’t have to do with emergency relief, which he repeated Monday.
“It’s a lie,” King said in a phone interview Monday. “That’s why people call him Lyin’ Ted.”
Minutes after the interview ended, King called back to extol the “New York values” of the New York firefighters and police officers who rushed to Texas to aid in rescue efforts. The north remembers, and the enmity runs deep.
North vs. south
“That was a regional vote; it was against the Northeast,” King, a Republican, says. “There are people in the House I’ve never spoken to since then.”
Part of the frustration came from the uncertain three months local officials were forced to wait to see how much federal money they’d get, ultimately tens of billions less than their requests. After Hurricane Katrina, by contrast, Congress passed a similar-sized aid bill within weeks.
Sandy relief allocations got caught up in debt politics, with Republicans insisting that spending cuts come with emergency funds. (A ringleader of that magnanimous impulse: then-Rep. Mick Mulvaney, now the cut-happy director of President Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget).
Among the “unrelated” spending Cruz complained about was aid toward Smithsonian repairs and Head Start, the federal program that supports low-income children under five.
King was furious that Cruz harped on the Smithsonian allocation. In the final bill, the museum got $2 million for Sandy-related repairs out of tens of billions in aid. If the Alamo had been hit, King posited, maybe Cruz “would have been more receptive.”
And Head Start? Republican Rep. Dan Donovan of Staten Island and Brooklyn doesn’t think that was a waste of money. Though he wasn’t in office at the time, his position was simple then and now: “We couldn’t put children in those buildings unless we cleaned them up,” he said on Monday.
Coming together after Harvey
With stormwaters flooding cities he represents, Cruz said in a statement on Monday “I’m thankful for the assurances from President Trump and Vice President Pence that full federal assistance stands at the ready once we begin the recovery and rebuilding process.”
Perhaps he will raise fewer objections about funding now that it will be coming to his constituents.
In 2012, he argued that disaster funding shouldn’t be an excuse for congressional goodies and money ill-spent. He’s right that local officials tend to reach for what they can. But various investigative bodies are tasked with keeping their eyes on such funds: from city comptroller Scott Stringer’s reports on NYC’s slow Build it Back program to audits from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.
Being careful is fine, but shouldn’t mean holding up necessary funding. And support may be needed for some time. Houston’s recovery is expected to take years, which tracks with the still-ongoing healing process in New York.
Donovan notes that some families are still displaced in his district as Sandy’s five-year anniversary approaches. And some projects funded by the Sandy bill weren’t short-term, but are meant to guard against “future risks,” says Dan Zarrilli, the city’s chief resilience officer.
Such projects are no less valuable, such as the seawall construction project now in the planning phase to protect “thousands of families” on Staten Island’s eastern shoreline, Donovan says.
For now, Donovan and King are both happy to call out Cruz for hypocrisy, but they say the politics won’t stop them from supporting assistance to Harvey victims.
“We’re all Americans,” Donovan says, “and we should come to their aid.”