Policy Storms Of The Century

Originally published at National Journal
By K. Daniel Glover

Meteorologically speaking, the hurricane that slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 died days later in the northern part of the continent. Politically speaking, Katrina is very much alive, and its eye has settled over Washington for the foreseeable future.

Shortly after the storm, Congress cleared two emergency spending bills totaling more than $60 billion. And lawmakers, as is typical, are also trying to make sure that their pet policy ideas ride the hurricane-induced legislative wave moving through the capital. But the real test of Katrina’s staying power will be whether the storm spawns substantive changes in federal disaster mitigation, just as its most infamous atmospheric siblings have done in the past.

Throughout history, hurricanes have captured the attention of government leaders, and President William McKinley was chief among them. Raymond Arsenault, a historian at the University of South Florida, recently noted on the History News Network that the near-annihilation of Cedar Key, Fla., and the deaths of more than 100 people in an 1896 hurricane made a lasting impression on McKinley — one that eventually influenced his military strategy.

“I am more afraid of West Indian hurricanes than I am of the entire Spanish navy,” McKinley said at the start of the Spanish-American War some two years later. That fear inspired the president to order the creation of a hurricane warning system designed to protect vessels in the Caribbean Sea.

Congress, for its part, has long been responding to hurricanes and other disasters by providing monetary relief. In a 1950 document printed in the Congressional Record, Rep. Harold Hagen, R-Minn., charted such federal aid back to 1803. Lawmakers have provided aid in the wake of everything from “Indian depredations” in the mid-1800s, to “grasshopper ravages” in the 1870s, to the kinds of disasters more familiar today: tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, and hurricanes.

The earliest hurricane-related federal spending that Hagen recorded came in 1928, after a September storm hit Puerto Rico. Congress provided $8.1 million to rehabilitate agriculture and schoolhouses and to purchase seeds. Two years later, lawmakers allocated $1 million to cover repair work by the Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief Commission, and they gave the commission loan breaks in 1935. Another $5 million went toward forest rehabilitation in New England after a hurricane struck there in September 1938.