The president was in New Jersey Sunday touring hurricane damage. It’s nice that he goes out to offer encouragement, but a few reflections on the role of the federal government in disaster relief are in order. As previously noted on Inkwell, Wahington Post columnist Dana Milbank has already hailed Irene as “a win for big government.”

In response to Milbank’s column, I said that the federal government had always been involved in disaster relief and argued that this, unlike so many things that the national government now does, was an appropriate role. Please, sombody come beat me with a copy of the Federalist Papers!

To back up my erroneous contention, I cited the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, when Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, rose to national prominence for his relief work.  Pictures of Hoover consulting with flooded out locals are still iconic where I grew up.

Well, Hoover was involved in disaster relief; the federal government nevertheless had a much more limited role. Amity Shlaes, who is working on a book about President Calvin Coolidge, who was president in 1927, explains how I was all wet:   

The Katrina of that year was the spring flood of the Mississippi River, which poured up to 30 feet of water from Illinois down to the Gulf of Mexico, rendering nearly a million homeless along the way.

Coolidge, who had been a governor, considered it inappropriate for the president to enter states willy nilly. So in his stead he sent south his commerce secretary, Herbert Hoover, to organize and run a public-private rescue with the American Red Cross. Neither Coolidge nor Congress believed that Washington should send a massive federal aid check-Washington might provide help, they thought, but it should be smaller than state and charitable giving.

The Mississippi River flood wasn’t the only epic natural disaster of Coolidge’s presidency. There was also terrible flooding in New England, especially the president’s native Vermont (which of course is enduring flooding from Irene). Shlaes notes:

But Coolidge didn’t rush home, an excruciating call that left him exposed to allegations that he didn’t care. A stickler for consistency, Coolidge sent Hoover again. Even this he didn’t do without hesitation, though, as authors Deborah and Nicholas Clifford note in their definitive Vermont flood history, “The Troubled Roar of the Waters.”

Coolidge also made sure to signal that there must be a limit to the federal presence, even as Vermonters endured great hardship that winter. “The government is not an insurer of its citizens against the hazards of the elements,” Coolidge said in his State of the Union address in December. A state might receive relief when overburdened; “this however does not mean restoration.”

Nevertheless Vermont was restored:

Individual Vermonters, companies, charities and the state government did much to help themselves and the citizens. To rebuild, Montpelier voted $8.5 million in state bonds, close to the state’s entire annual tax take. Lawmakers also lent some capital to the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad. Private railroads stepped in to fund their own fixes.

Coolidge did eventually permit a federal role, but his overriding belief was that states should be responsible for their own relief:

Coolidge finally took his finger from the federal dike and signed federal flood legislation for the South, authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to engineer flood prevention. He also signed a law that gave highway funds to states, including money for needed Vermont roads. In the end, he manifested the view that presidents can and should inspire and coordinate, but states should take the lead in their recovery.

President Obama-shirt-sleeved at the National Weather Service seemed eager to use the hurricane as propaganda for big government. But perhaps it is just the opposite:

Coolidge finally traveled home in September 1928, nearly a year after the flood. At Bennington, he told his fellow citizens in a prose poem what they already knew:

“Vermont is a state I love. I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killington, Mansfield, and Equinox, without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me. . . . I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all because of her indomitable people.” The federal hand had helped Vermont, but what endured were Coolidge’s words.

Perhaps contemporary natural disasters provide, in fact, an argument for a smaller role of the federal government. 

Few would say that New Orleans displayed an indomitable spirit in the immediate wake of Katrina. But we are so used to the notion of federal control of just about everything that the images of President Obama directing hurricane response strikes too few of us as odd.