As Hurricane Irene ravaged the East Coast this weekend, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said the storm and last week's earthquake were God's way of trying to get politicians in Washington to deal with soaring federal deficits.
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending," Bachmann said in Sarasota on Sunday, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
- Storms pose tests for politicians and expose real differences on the role of government.
On Monday, Bachmann said the comments were said as a joke.
"If you take everything that a person says as straightforward you misunderstand the intent," Bachmann said in Florida. "So of course I was being humorous when I said that because the American people have tried very hard to get the President to pay attention; he is not listening. And that was really the message that I was trying to give in those comments. So it was a great deal of humor; it would be absurd to think that it was anything other."
Joking or not, hurricanes, natural disasters and other Acts of God pose very real tests for politicians and communities and very real differences on the role of government.
The Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody says part of it is just the way Michele Bachmann sees the world. For her, he said, God is "part of every sort of dynamic" including politics and weather.
"What Michele Bachmann's campaign strategy seems to be is to make sure she's not seen as an extreme candidate and for her not to just appeal to the Tea Party and evangelicals, but also independents. So when she comes out and jokes around like this -- her campaign is saying it's a joke -- it does play into the stereotype that's out there," Brody said. "That's a danger zone for her, but at the same time she is what she is, so it's hard for her to rein in at times."
In a 2005 ABC News poll, after Hurricane Katrina, 23 percent of those surveyed -- nearly one in four -- said they saw recent hurricanes as deliberate acts of God. Of them, about half said they thought Katrina was intended as "a warning." About one in three evangelical Protestants in the poll said they thought Katrina was a deliberate act of God.
The poll was conducted after an Alabama state senator described Hurricane Katrina as God's punishment for "gambling, sin and wickedness."
Bachmann wasn't the only GOP primary candidate to weigh in on the storm. For Rep. Ron Paul -- whose Texas district includes Hurricane-prone Galveston -- the storm was just another reminder that FEMA should be dismantled.
On Friday in New Hampshire, just hours before Irene started her destructive trip up the Eastern seaboard, Paul said it should be up to the states to deal with natural disasters.
"We should be like 1900. We should be like 1940, 1950, 1960," Paul told a reporter for NBC News in Gilford, N.H. "I live on the Gulf Coast; we deal with hurricanes all the time. Galveston is in my district."
"There's no magic about FEMA. They're a great contribution to deficit financing and, quite frankly, they don't have a penny in the bank. We should be coordinated, but coordinated voluntarily with the states," Paul said. "A state can decide. We don't need somebody in Washington."
Paul continued his criticism during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," saying he wants "to transition us out of this dependency" and the idea that "FEMA will take care of us and everything will be OK."
"It's a system of bureaucratic centralized economic planning that is a policy that is deeply flawed," Paul said.
Paul added that FEMA was in "big trouble financially."
"Where would the money come from … You try to make these programs work the best you can, but you can't just keep saying they need money," Paul said. "We are out of money."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's job is to coordinate the response to a major disaster. Its reputation was badly damaged after its disastrous Katrina response, but for Irene it had teams on the ground already to help the states clean up and recover.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the current 2012 Republican frontrunner, was asked about the president's handling of Irene on Saturday in Des Moines, but he wasn't ready to assess Obama's job -- at least when it came to the storm.
"He has been an absolute disaster as a president from the standpoint of our economy. That's what people are really focused on," Perry said, according to CNN.
"Taking a snapshot of whether or not he's appropriately dealt with the hurricane -- I don't know yet. I'll tell you when the hurricane's over."
Perry was also asked if he agreed with Paul's Friday comments about getting rid of FEMA. He criticized the agency, but didn't suggest the agency be dismantled.
"I just think FEMA needs to be effective," Perry answered. "They need to be able to help the people when they have natural disasters across this country. We've seen FEMA not perform to the level, from time to time. They can be slow, they can be bureaucratic."
Perry added, "Is there a better way to do it? Is there a better way to coordinate with the states? Listen, nobody knows better how to deal with the issues of preparations, search and rescue than the local governments."
The 2012 aspirants notwithstanding, it was local and state politicians and even President Obama that Americans on the East Coast saw on their televisions all weekend, at least if they had electric power.
With Hurricane Katrina on people's minds six years later, President Obama updated the country Friday, Sunday, and Monday on the preparations and aftermath. Before announcing an economic appointment in the Rose Garden Monday, Obama said it would take time to recover from Irene and promised the federal government would continue to help as states deal with clean up.
On Friday, before cutting his Martha's Vineyard vacation short, he urged the country to take Irene seriously.
"I cannot stress this highly enough: If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, take precautions now," Obama said in a radio address.
On Sunday he said he wanted to know if any local governments were having problems with FEMA.
"If they need something, I want to know about it," he said from the White House Sunday. "We're going to make sure that we respond as quickly and effectively as possible."
He warned that the effects of Irene were "not over."
"Response and recovery efforts will be an ongoing operation, and I urge Americans in affected areas to continue to listen for the guidance and direction of their state and local officials," Obama said.
"I want to underscore that the impacts of this storm will be felt for some time and the recovery effort will last for weeks or longer."
And local politicians like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who had warned people for days to be ready for the worst, were praised for being prepared. Both had been criticized after a Christmas 2010 snowstorm that left New York City and parts of New Jersey paralyzed.
Christie, a Republican, got some kind words from Perry, who said Christie was "spot on" when he called for people to evacuated the New Jersey shore.
"Chris Christie is a governor who gets it," Perry said Saturday. "Those governors of those states along the Eastern Seaboard are the ones that are actually going to be making the decisions that save the lives, that prepare for this hurricane, that do the search and rescue, and then frankly -- do the first part of the recovery."
(ABC News' Jason Volack contributed reporting.)