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Still Waiting for Sandy Relief

You wouldn’t know this from the coverage, as the press has moved on to deficits and grand bargains. But we still have a public health disaster in the middle of the heavily populated Eastern seaboard as a result of Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath.

The New York City Health Department is warning medical providers that although power has been restored in the city, thousands of New Yorkers are still living without heat in their homes, resulting in a soaring number of recent hypothermia cases. In the weeks after Sandy hit, cold exposure sent three times as many people to the emergency room compared to the same period in November between 2008 and 2011. And public health officials are worried that the problem will worsen in the upcoming winter months:

The department warned health care providers that residents living in unheated homes faced “a significant risk of serious illness and death from multiple causes.” […]
And as temperatures dip, health officials said the cold could lead to other health problems, including a worsening of heart and lung diseases and an increase in anxiety and depression.

“My bigger concern is what happens in the future as we get closer to winter in the next four weeks,” Dr. Thomas A. Farley, the city’s health commissioner, said in an interview. “There are probably about 12,000 people living in unheated apartments right now.”

So before we talk about aggressive opening offers and strong negotiating positions, we have to note the absence of Sandy-related disaster relief in any form coming from Washington. Even though we’re starting to see the effects of Sandy on leading economic indicators like retail sales, nobody has addressed how to provide relief, for economic or simply moral reasons. On the economic side, analysts claim that rebuilding will fill some measure of the GDP loss from the storm. But the question then becomes, who pays for that? Insurance claims will pick up some of the slack, but without a federal appropriation, the more likely scenario is that damage will sit, unaddressed.

There’s just no expectation that Congress will separate the budget debate from the massive human needs out there because of Sandy. Maybe they’ll rally; there are indications that Eric Cantor won’t ask for budget offsets for relief. But nothing has moved thus far, despite repeated requests from the states. There’s a time for politics and then there should be a time to help those in dire need. But I guess that doesn’t happen anymore in Washington.

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David Dayen

David Dayen