Jun 19, 2022

Navigating Disaster Politics

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Todd T DeVoe
This podcast features strategies and advice from today’s leaders and experts in emergency management. Its purpose is to empower and enrich current and future leaders.
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During a round table, I asked Craig Fugate if we could take politics out of Disaster response. His answer was simple, no. It is that all disaster responses have political consequences. Fema has a training called The Politics of Disaster. Here they state, "Disasters have Political Consequences: One widely observed but not fully understood principle of the disaster/politics relationship is that disasters and their aftermath have significant potential to affect the political environment of a community, state or nation." 

Jeff Schlegelmilch of Columbia University has a  podcast called Disaster Politics. He explores policies that impact disaster response and recovery. Thor Neureiter's documentary Disaster Capitalism sheds light on the strings that come with global aid given to nations after a disaster. This includes how China has exploited mineral mines in Afghanistan and many African countries.  

We have witnessed the mess that politics created with the COVID response. A time that could have brought the nation together, the political parties used it as an opportunity to attack their opponents. 

The political gamesmanship after a disaster is not new. Disasters are politicized both by Democrats and Republicans. And despite the perception of increased partisanship in recent years, disaster aid has been a political football since 1972.

The Politics of Disaster Funding 

In October of 2020, after a devastating wildfire ripped through California, FEMA denied federal aid. This was seen as a political stunt by President Trump. Shortly after the denial, Trump reversed the decision and gave California disaster relief funding. Rhetoric notwithstanding, the impact of politics on disaster relief is not news to anyone who has been in emergency management. In many ways, it's an accepted part of how policymakers do business. What might be surprising to some is how this system impacts state officials' behavior.

Stated do not have a strong incentive to spend money on projects like dams or levees. These projects are expensive, and spending money on them diverts funds away from more visible and popular initiatives with voters. When a disaster strikes, the governor takes cover and blames the federal government for the lack of funding for infrastructure programs. 

Winning Elections On Disaster Response (or Recovery) 

I have argued that we do respond well for the most part. It is covered in the national news showing the heroic actions of rescues from flood waters and firefighters battling the blazes engulfing homes. If there are complaints about how the government failed, it is due to how recovery is handled. How does this impact politics? 

Local and national leaders are rewarded at the polls when the public thinks they did a good job handling natural disasters and punished when people think they did a lousy job. For a politician's handling of a disaster to be reflected at the polls, voters first need to be aware of the natural disaster and their elected officials. Second, they need to link the political actors with the disaster. They have to believe politicians should take some blame and not place it all on the stroke of bad luck or a negligent corporation. Third, they need to assess whether the leader handled the situation well or poorly.

The nation's sensitivity to disaster relief has caused policymakers to undervalue disaster preparedness. As I have written before, politicians are rewarded by the voters when they give or get funding for recovery, and preparedness dollars go unnoticed. The problem is that when disaster preparedness is done well, nobody notices. And I believe some may want the administration in power to fail so that the opposition party can use it for fodder in the next election. 

As emergency managers, we must keep ourselves out of disaster politics. However, we need to be aware that they exist. At times we are made the scapegoat for failed policies. Start thinking about how seemingly independent systems are connected. We need to understand the political, social, and practical implications of emergency management and disaster response policies and how to navigate them. 

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