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The political side of disaster recovery

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KauffmanBy Jacob Kauffman

Political Columnist

The devastation of a natural disaster is not something that I have had to personally endure to too a great degree. I’m thankful that my existence in Little Rock has been tranquil in that regard. But I along with others from a more fortunate perch have watched with concern – and a feeling that all who live in a tornado plagued state know – as news came in from Nashville last week. Some of it is particularly tragic.
It appeared that families and churches rallied together on their accord, a natural resiliency that Arkansas communities are known for. It’s at that personal level where the real recovery happens.


But this is traditionally a political column and I’m going to drudge out some of the politics, or the civics, of disaster recovery. Some of the large-scale challenges of disaster recovery often require help from experienced partners. Tax payer funded assistance. And what that tax payer help looks like varies based on the varied wills of voters, politicians, and those that fund and advertise for politicians.
The capacity of local services such as the (volunteer) fire department, police department or sheriff’s office, sanitation and road crews, and alert sirens has a limit. Some towns meet it faster than others. The state of Arkansas is often of invaluable assistance. Governor Asa Hutchinson tried to make that known in Howard County and a number of others declared disaster areas. Visiting afflicted areas is unfortunately a role that the Republican governor will have to come to know too well by the time he leaves office.
In July of 2014 I followed behind former Governor Mike Beebe as he toured recovery efforts in southwest Faulkner County in central Arkansas. This particular patch of earth was just one of a string of communities hit by an April tornado. I asked Beebe about the importance of state assistance in disaster recovery. Beebe laughed and said it would be “impossible” without outside help.
The ousted Democratic Senator Mark Pryor made a big deal out of now-Senator Tom Cotton’s votes on FEMA funding in the 2014 campaign. The votes became a well advertised critique after a night of deadly tornadoes in Vilonia, Mayflower, and western Pulaski County. President Barack Obama made his first trip to Arkansas since 2006 to learn from those impacted, pitch himself as ‘being there,’ and to highlight the resources being poured in by the federal government – a manifestation of his concern.
The flooding that accompanied the damaging weather last week has served as a reminder that the state’s network of inland waterways can pose a serious threat in its own right. To some degree our susceptibility is a funding question. State Senator Jason Rapert of Faulkner County bristled that he’s been advocating for a better levee system and improvements to Toad Suck lock and dam.
Agriculture took a hit, as did some homeowners, and barge traffic ceased along parts of the Arkansas River. It isn’t exactly a glorious start to the river’s new federal designation as a “corridor,” the highest category of commercial river traffic.
The present should be used to take in the immediate needs, challenges, and accomplishments following a hard time. But it’s always important to take a look back, or ahead, to set Arkansas on a course that mitigates the harms of what we can’t control. And for all our sakes get the TV reporters out of the rising water and into the office of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Jacob Kauffman has reported on the state legislature since 2013 and primarily covers Arkansas politics for KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock. His work has appeared on NPR, PBS News Hour, as well as a variety of state publications. He is also a regular panelist on AETN’s Arkansas Week and writes an exclusive weekly column for The Nashville News.

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