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Disaster Central
MCNY's Emergency and Disaster Management Blog

Politics and Major Disaster Declarations

August 11, 2008

It is not surprising that questions exist concerning the exact relationship between disaster preparedness, response, and recovery funding, and partisan politics.  In its August 9, 2008, edition, The New York Times published an article by Austin Bogues that indicated that during the seven and a half years of his administration, President George W. Bush declared 422 major disasters, the most of any prior administration.  The article further asks if there was (or is) a political connection between this seeming largess on the part of FEMA, and disaster-prone areas where the Bush administration has found its traditional support.

But the mechanics of disaster relief are far more complicated (and far more important) than a simple game of partisan politics.  Emergency Management is a profession, a noble endeavor with ethics and skills and traditions, which defies quantification as mere political pawns.  Some theorists and practitioners define Emergency Management as a purely logistical undertaking, while others consider it a more hybrid creation, one where logistics plays one of many supporting roles aimed at restoring an injured community’s vitality.  Emergency Management is often about saving lives through saving systems, and the rules of mitigation require that the endeavor touch upon preparedness, response, and recovery – the recovery of systems.

The most prevalent of these systems is economic.  President Calvin Coolidge once remarked that, “The business of America is business,” and in this sense all that we do as Emergency Managers is directed toward saving the systems – the commercial, retail, banking, health, education, and others – that sustain each of us; and in doing so, maintain our national standard of living.

When one considers the mechanics of liberal democracy, a jurisdiction’s political affiliation is often less important to Washington decision-makers than the ability of that jurisdiction to provide its citizens, businesses, and neighbors with a stable, prosperous environment.  By virtue of its obligations, the federal government is most concerned with the collection of taxes, as it is from this resource that its many other responsibilities can be fulfilled.  It is therefore not surprising that the federal government would want to use disaster declarations as a means for offsetting the economic losses sustained by communities from hydrological, seismological, and technological disasters.  On September 18, 1994, FEMA provided a disaster declaration – a major declaration – for California’s and Washington State’s salmon industry that had been disrupted by a strong El Nino configuration.  A similar declaration was issued in 1953 and 1954 for Alaska’s salmon producers, indicating the often-economic impetus behind disaster declarations.

In the June 2008 edition of Homeland Security Affairs Journal, Professor Christopher Bellavita provides a survey of disasters as defined by FEMA.  In his article, “Changing Homeland Security: What is Homeland Security?” Bellavita indicates that between September 11, 2001, and December 31, 2007, there were some 1,205 disaster conditions in the United States and its overseas territories, including 336 wildfires (first place) and 224 severe storms (second place).  In addition, during the same time, there were hurricanes (105 of them), winter storms (102), tornadoes (78), typhoons (in Guam and other North Pacific U.S. holdings), and coastal storms (3).  A comparison between the number of major disaster declarations and the number of “disasters” indicates that if politics were being played, the field could have been potentially much larger.

FEMA provides an excellent online resource that lists all disaster declarations (major and otherwise) by year, and by state and territory.  The database (which can be accessed at http://www.fema.gov/news/disaster_totals_annual.fema) indicates that Texas has, between 1953 and 2008, had the most major disaster declarations – 82.  The Lone Star State is closely followed by California, Florida, Oklahoma, and New York State.  In addition, there were dozens of disaster declarations that were not considered “major” disasters based on magnitude.  It should be noted that according to the FEMA database, 100% of Texas’ major disaster declarations were due to weather and/or fire-related conditions, while a disaster declaration (but not a major one) was issued for 47 states in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to provide federal assistance to communities impacted by evacuees from the northern Gulf coast.

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