Throughout their response to Hurricane Sandy, politicians have gone to great lengths to avoid conjuring up images of Hurricane Katrina. Mainly they didn’t want to repeat the mistakes made in 2005, but now Andrew Cuomo is learning that comparing disasters is problematic, even when you’re just trying to help your state recover. When the governor announced at a press conference on Monday afternoon that the storm would cost New York State around $42 billion, he went on to say that made Sandy “more impactful” than Katrina. The New York Times report notes that Cuomo said Sandy “affected many, many more people and places than Katrina,” adding that comparison between the storms “puts this entire conversation, I believe, in focus.” Unsurprisingly, people aren’t reacting well to Cuomo suggesting that a storm with a death toll under 200 is worse than one that killed more than 1,800 people.
Though the Times report, which was frequently cited in complaints on Twitter, states that “Mr. Cuomo acknowledged that more people had been killed by Hurricane Katrina, but said that Hurricane Sandy had had a greater economic impact because of the dense population in the New York City area,” many people still accused Cuomo of callously placing more importance on the property damage and cleanup costs than the loss of human life.
In context, Cuomo’s remarks aren’t that cold-hearted. The governor is preparing to ask the federal government for a staggering amount of money at a time when Washington is gearing up to negotiate a way to avoid the fiscal cliff. At the press conference (video here), Cuomo brought up Katrina to support his argument that there’s a historical precedent for providing such a large amount of money for disaster relief. “If the first question is should the Congress pass the supplemental, does this merit a supplemental compared to past activities, it clearly does by the Congress’s past activity and just on the merits,” said Cuomo. He went on to rattle off figures on how Sandy caused more power outages and damage to homes than Katrina, but later in the press conference, he clarified that he only meant Sandy was “more impactful from a specific housing and economic development point of view.” “Katrina had a human toll that thankfully we have not paid in this region,” said Cuomo. “Katrina was a different story of government involvement and government action.”
Still, placing the two storms side by side and even releasing a spreadsheet comparing the damage probably wasn’t the smartest move. Cuomo could have simply reminded everyone of the devastation caused by Sandy and noted that the federal government has been providing aid for disaster recovery for decades without highlighting Katrina. It wasn’t hard to predict that his lengthy assessment of the economic impact of the two biggest hurricanes in recent memory would be boiled down to “Cuomo says Sandy was worse than Katrina.”