It will take days, perhaps weeks to tally the losses from the fierce storm that clobbered the East Coast this week, killing at least 62 people and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes.

From North Carolina to Maine, and as far inland as the Midwest, nature's power was on full display — piers, boardwalks and oceanside homes smashed by waves, streets and buildings flooded, a 170-foot water tanker thrown aground in Staten Island, N.Y., cargo shipping halted by two-foot waves on the Great Lakes, an entire neighborhood burned to the ground in Queens.

At the storm's peak, more than 8.5 million people were without power. As much as 12 inches of rain and 34 inches of snow fell in 24 hours. Businesses closed, and trading was halted on the New York Stock Exchange for two days. Airlines canceled thousands of flights, and public transit systems were shut down in some of the most densely populated cities in the country.

With damage estimates running between $30 billion and $50 billion, analysts said the economic growth rate for the fourth quarter could be reduced as much as a 0.6 percent.

In short, the impact of this storm is being felt throughout the country. And rebuilding will require more resources than any city, or any single state, can muster.

After a hurricane, after a tornado, after an earthquake or wildfire, there is a vital role for the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency assists with on-the-ground support and, in conjunction with the Small Business Administration, arranges low-interest loans for homeowners and businesses.

When FEMA's response falls short, as it did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a natural disaster can become a calamity.

The initial response to Hurricane Sandy has been quick and efficient, according to governors and mayors in the disaster zone. FEMA officials were in place before the storm hit, and President Barack Obama pledged that "no bureaucracy, no red tape" would slow relief efforts.

To his credit, Mitt Romney turned campaign events into relief rallies. And after ignoring questions for a day, he walked back from his statement in a debate last year that the federal government should leave disaster relief to states and the private sector.

"As president," he said Wednesday, "I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission." That's a big change from "every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."

For some programs, that is the right direction. But natural disasters don't follow state lines, and the private sector is ill-equipped to address flooded subways and other damage to public infrastructure.

Moreover, with climate change threatening to bring more frequent and more ferocious storms, there's likely to be a growing demand for federal assistance — perhaps modeled on the national flood insurance program — rather than relying on a patchwork state-by-state response to earthquakes, hurricanes and other regional disasters.