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Fact: Disasters are political

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On the eve of the US Presidential election it’s been barely a week since North America was impacted by one of the costliest disasters in US history. Although the mass media has largely moved on from the effects of the storm, its impact on the US Presidential election is likely to be debated for some time to come.

Before Hurricane Sandy even hit though there were the usual calls for the disaster not to be politicised. However endorsements for Obama’s handling of the response from Republican and Independent leaders, along with the crackpot right blaming gays and the Muslim Brotherhood and the green left blaming climate change quickly quashed those calls.

Fact is, disasters are political.

As with so much political these days the most important thing is image. It doesn’t matter what impact the decisions of leaders in an emergency have (let alone if those leaders are in a decision making capacity) we expect the appearance of certain behaviour. When Victorian Police Commissioner Christine Nixon went on a quiet dinner with friends at the height of the 2009 Black Saturday disaster (an action which had absolutely no impact on the disaster response) she was pilloried left, right and centre.

Handling a disaster well can lead to a small boost in polls (though usually temporary) for political leaders:

  • Obama’s rating has jumped in the wake of the storm, though it’s impossible to know how much of that is due to his performance and the Government’s response.
  • During the 2011 floods and Cyclone Yasi, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh gained a huge boost to her approval rating thanks to her handling of the twin disasters. However it was the Lord Mayor of Brisbane who got the most applause. Campbell Newman went on to lead the opposition party to victory over Anna Bligh from outside parliament. Did his new profile after the floods give him the springboard to launch an attack on the LNP leadership and then government? I don’t think we’ll ever know.
  • And in the month after 9/11 George W. Bush’s approval reached the highest of any US President since modern polling began in 1938.

On the other hand mishandling a disaster can have the opposite effect. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, George W. Bush’s approval rating (which soared high after 9/11) plummeted to new lows.

But disaster response is nothing when compared to disaster recovery. Large cash grants which are activated by political decisions, leave the field ripe for politicisation.

Disaster declarations release special funds (I’m ignoring the kind of declarations that are solely focused on special response powers – usually called a state of emergency) for response and recovery including for state and local governments and cash grants for households and businesses. Researchers studying this in the United States found the most interesting effect for Democratic Presidents and Republican Governors – the shortest delays for a declaration were in these cases. For borderline disasters (small in terms of the damage bill) states that were small and of the same political persuasion as the President, received much less funds than large friendly states and less even than small unfriendly states.

It’s not just Presidents, more recent research has found that Governors also behave opportunistically when requesting Federal aid.

And others found that spending on disaster relief buys a similar number of votes to other forms of government expenditure (although, ironically, not expenditure on mitigation activity). The political lesson of this research is clear – fail to invest in mitigation, be quick and generous with relief grants and be rewarded at the ballot box.

It’s clear that we disaster managers face an uphill battle to shift the focus to mitigation. Even when politicians agree (e.g. former Australian Attorney-General and Minister for Emergency Management Robert McClelland) they don’t put their money where their mouth is (during his tenure federal funding for disaster mitigation fell in real dollar terms – I can’t find the citation so you’ll have to take my word for it). We need to look for new ways to harness the political reality around disasters to achieve improved community resilience.

If you want to share your experience, know of a good paper looking at the intersection of disasters and politics or have an idea how this knowledge can be used to better lobby for resilience building initiatives leave your feedback in the comments.



  1. M. Eburn says:

    As noted above, handling disasters, and funding disaster recovery brings political rewards, but there is little reward for preventing them. After a disaster a government can be seen handing out largess and standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with those impacted by the event, but spending money on prevention brings no rewards. It’s hard to convince an electorate that money needs to be spent to prevent something that hasn’t happened, and even harder to later point to demonstrate that it was this investment that caused something not to happen. Proving the negative is always difficult; if there is a bad intersection, with lots of accidents, building a roundabout may reduce the number of accidents but you can’t then say ‘we stopped x accidents’ – those accidents never happened! In that example there may be historical records to support the argument that prevention achieved something. That’s harder if for example you want to build defensive measures, or measures to improve resilience against climate change and, say, rising sea levels. If a community’s never been flooded how do you convince them that money spent on flood mitigation is worthwhile, and when can you point to an outcome to say ‘see that worked’. Even if there is a definitive moment it will come long after the money has been spent and long after the officials who advocated for resilience measures have left office.

    Governments, emergency services, officials need disasters – they encourage the communities to fund their programmes and, as noted, bring immediate political rewards. Whilst that is the case, prevention will always be the poor cousin to response.

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