The Politics of Chaos and Mayhem

Politics always come into play any time money and public opinion seem to be involved as politicians find a way to leverage the disaster itself or the relief that follows either for personal gain or for party gain. Besides the natural disasters of nightmares recently, other quiet disaster have been cooking for years such as famine, food shortage, water shortage, epidemics like malaria and HIV/ AIDS, conflicts, genocides and wars. Why does aid take so long even when the matter is so cut and dry? Why is it more favorable to send aid overseas than it is aid your own country? The simple answer goes back to the politics behind chaos and mayhem. People look more favorable on a leader like the president when disasters happen during their administration and how the handling of them goes as well, however the reverse has shown in the past that a president who screws the pooch so to speak has a lower approval rating. Of course other things factor into approval rating, but for these purposes the focus of this article is to discuss the politics involved and behind natural and man made disasters as well as disaster relief or aid.

A disaster is defined as  a natural or man made or technological hazard resulting in an event of substantial extent causing significant damage, loss of life or environmental changes. A disaster can also be define as any tragedy stemming from the hazard such as earthquakes, floods, catastrophic accidents, fires, or explosions. The event can cause damage to life and property and destroy economic, social and cultural life of people. In the arena of academia, disaster are thought of as consequences of mismanaged risk which are products of hazards and vulnerability. Hazards that happen in low risk areas will not become disasters such as uninhabited areas. In the developing world, countries suffer a great deal more with greater costs when a disaster occurs as 95 percent of deaths caused occur in developing countries and losses are 20 times greater in developing world than in industrialized nations.

According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, between 2000-2012 the world saw $1.7 trillion in damages, 2.9 billion affected and 1.2 million killed in disaster ravaged areas. Researchers have studied disasters for more than a century as the common opinion seems to be that all disasters seem to be human made because human actions before a hazard occurs could prevent it from developing into a disaster. Therefore all disasters are a result of human failure to introduce the proper disaster management programs. The classification for disaster can be human or natural, but some are compounded in developing countries where secondary disaster may occur such as an earthquake leading to a tsunami and resulting in flooding. Man made disasters are consequences of technological or human hazard such as stampedes, fires, transport accidents, industrial accidents, oil spills and nuclear explosions/radiation. War and deliberate attacks can also be place in this category. Like natural disasters, man made disasters have not happened yet i.e terrorism and are specific examples of cases where man made hazards become a reality in an event.

The consequences of a natural hazard can affect humans and built environments when a lack of appropriate emergency management is in place leading to financial, environmental or human impact. The loss then depends on the resilience of the population to support and resist the disaster. Events such as earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, floods and cyclones are all natural disasters that kill thousands and destroy billions of dollars worth of habitats and properties each year. Natural disaster can strike in unpopulated areas and never develop into a disaster, however the rapid growth in population and increase concentration has escalated the frequency and severity of natural disasters. Asia suffers the most causalities in natural disasters due to tropical climate, unstable land forms, deforestation, unplanned growth, non-engineered construction, tardy communication and poor budget allocation leaving them open to chronic disaster and suffering.

According to Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III, Disaster “Politics” and the Politics of Disaster, the essential purpose of public servants and governments is to serve the people, alleviate and eliminate human suffering and use the resources of the government to help those suffering while using in cooperation the political process to facilitate short term and long term solutions designed to aid people who cannot cope with the disaster by themselves. Therefore disaster politics requires all resources and powers of government and private sector to be used to help people in need to alleviate suffering and pain, while the politics of disaster  is the use of the political process to intentionally and cruelly inflict pain and suffering on one party by another and its members or use one socioeconomic class to harm another resulting in humiliation, alienation and dislocation of people simply for political or personal reasons. Disaster politics aim to set aside differences between parties in order to help the greater good and does not carry with it the usual draconian politics but rises above it to help those suffering.  Unfortunately, the politics of disaster creates its own conflicts for political purposes to use them to inflict injury on political adversaries and their supporters polarizing people and suspending access to those life and death resources that can lift people out of a crisis. The politics of disaster has lead to a divided political system which has only welcomed stalemates and gridlock when legislation to temporary alleviate or permanently eliminate pain and suffering for Americans is concerned.

When disaster strikes in the United States, only the president can declare the site a federal disaster area making it eligible for assistance. Even though these situations are nonpolitical, presidents have a fair, if personal, standard by which to determine the whether the issue grants the declaration, according to Brian Tracey. However analysis of 10 years (1989 to 1999) of these decision by former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton demonstrate that in marginal disasters the size of the state and how political parties view it as competitive or not actually matter. In 1994, Bill Clinton turned down a request by governor James Edgar for help with floods on Chicago’s South Side that caused $6.7 million in damage as Illinois was declared a Republican state by Clinton’s 1992 campaign. A year later, Clinton declared a disaster in response to New Orleans floods that caused $10 million in damage as Clinton’s strategists considered Louisiana a pivotal state.

In Reeves paper, Political Disaster? Electoral Politics and Presidential Disaster Declarations, he uses data from economists Thomas A. Garrett (of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis) and Russell S. Sobel (of the College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University), as well as statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). According to Tracey, Reeves combines these with data on whether political parties view particular states as “friends,” “enemies,” or “competitive,” based on their likelihood of voting for the party’s presidential candidate. The decade long study found that 659 presidential disaster declarations were made with every state having at least one and Texas with 89 between 1996-1998 leading Reeves to exclude the data for those years leaving 570 cases. All but four disasters analyzed were due to extreme weather including fires. Emergency aid is an easy political tool at the president’s disposal when he can accept or deny a declaration request from a governor of the affected state. During the 10 years of study, 17 percent of requests were turned down and were generally minor weather events and when requests are accepted the money allocated is determined by FEMA not the president. The money allocated for the 570 disasters was $36.4 million ranging from $6,301 (Montana, 1999) to $7 billion (California, 1994). According to Tracey during his four years in office, President George H.W. Bush averaged 39 disaster declarations annually, while the seven years of the Clinton presidency that Reeves studied averaged 72 disasters per year. Reeves further explained that when he focused on the presidential election years of 1992 and 1996, Reeves found that “President Clinton was about 60 percent more likely than President Bush to declare a disaster in a pivotal, electorally important state.”

Several examples throughout recent history have demonstrate that disaster politics seems to always take a backseat to the politics of disaster. On Monday night September 12,2011, the Senate Republicans rejected the Democrats effort to move a $7 billion disaster aid package to help areas of the country devastated by recent tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding. The 53-33 vote needed 60 to advance legislation proposed by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that would replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency fund. Only a few Republicans broke party lines to vote with democrats. The Republican wanted the disaster aid to be offset by spending cuts to other parts of government as at the time they faced a government shutdown if no decision was reached by October 1. Congress eventually approved the package and President Obama signed it into law that December. On January 2,2013 Wednesday, Rep. Peter King became infuriated as House Speaker John Boehner killed a disaster relief package for victims of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Republican spent the last day of the 112th Congress mulling the moral decline of the GOP according to Tim Murphy of the site Mother Jones.  “I can’t imagine that type of indifference, that type of disregard, that cavalier attitude being shown to any other part of the country,” he said in a floor speech. In King’s telling, Boehner’s decision was a “a cruel knife in the back.” Later in the day, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie also wondered what had come of his party, calling the decision “callous” and “disgusting,” and adding: “This used to be something that was not political.” Apparently, Boehner has a long history of blocking disaster relief and for that matter the GOP which has become a trait of how the current GOP does business. Other instances of aid blocking by the Republicans include Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, 9/11, Joplin, Mo. tornadoes, Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, Mississippi River flooding, Texas wildfires, and the Joplin tornado. ( Republicans Have a Habit of Blocking Disaster Relief for Americans by Tim Murphy)


Eventually Congress does get over the politics of disaster long enough to realize that people need help and a chance to rebuild their lives. After the bickering over Hurricane Sandy, the house passed a smaller package later that week to cover flood insurance claims and did eventually vote on a larger overall package according to Brad Plumer at the Washington Post. The problem is that these battles in Congress have become more high stakes in the past decade as the federal government plays a much larger role in hurricane relief than previously the New York Fed reports. Between 1989 and 2004, the federal government and insurance covered around 26 percent of the cost of a major hurricane while the rest was paid for by state and local governments, individuals, businesses and charities paid for the rest. After Hurricane Katrina, the government paid an average of 69 percent. In recent years, Congress has started to reimburse state and local governments even pay for more projects to mitigate damage from future storms adding up to more than a 100 percent. As the NBER authors commented, “Given the current approach to disaster relief funding we project an ‘unfunded’ liability for disaster assistance over the next seventy-five years comparable to that of Social Security.” The problem can get worse as climate change and sea levels rise making flood and natural disasters more frequent and destructive.

The constant haphazard manner of finding money to pay for federal disaster relief has lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fall short of funds needed in addition to the $7 billion already in the relief fund. As disasters get worse so will the funding available as they become more costly and cause more damage. The graph below shows the study by NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center showing the number of U.S. weather disasters that cause $1 billion or more in damage has drastically increased over time. With a growing population, bigger cities and more buildings lead to the possibility of more damage as tornadoes or hurricanes rip through the town. NOAA also points out that more people are living in high risk coastal areas making them vulnerable to severe weather events. Climate change may also make disasters worse as a warmer planet will mean more extreme precipitation events in the Northern Hemisphere and a greater number of floods and droughts in certain region leading to wildfires.

According to Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, every politician whether red or blue recognizes that the states are high when it comes to the politics of disaster as failure to clean up damage from a hurricane quickly can damage their political future.Every politician, red and blue, realized the stakes involved. The failure to prepare and respond effectively to this disaster could be politically devastating to the standing of any politician. The failure to clean up the damage from the hurricane in the next few days, swiftly and effectively, could undercut any political future. Some presidents have done well at cleaning up the natural disasters like Hurricane Betsy in Louisiana in September of 1965 when Lyndon Johnson hesitated because of his busy schedule, the canny Democratic Sen. Russell Long said: “If you go there right now, Mr. President, they couldn’t beat you if Eisenhower ran!” Of course Johnson, motivated by incentive and humanitarianism, went right away providing whatever help and assistance was needed. Relief arrived quickly, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1965 and Louisiana began rebuilding.

Other presidents did not fair so well as President Bush can attest to with not just one hurricane but two. In Florida, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 devastated the region and Bush declared a state of emergency and help but help didn’t arrive for days. As people became frustrated and angry with the lack of help, Floridians began to blame Bush for what happened so his approval rating began to sink going into the election. He redeemed himself with the response to 9/11 and again stumbled with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the Federal Emergency Management Agency, under the direction of Michael Brown, who many felt was not qualified for the position, had immense trouble overseeing the response. The comparison to President Clinton only made the situation more devastating as the suffering endured in New Orleans was immense and broadcast on national television. This raised further questions about his ability to govern, competence and cronyism followed him for years and his weak response weakened his claim to be a compassionate conservative who cared about minorities.

Another president who suffered early in his presidency was President Obama who dealt with the Gulf Coast oil spill in a slow and often halting manner. The clean up helped him to regain some footing but raised questions about how much better he was than his previous predecessor Bush. Obama has had many crisis in his time in office and as it continue he cannot afford to have anymore as that will raise more questions of his ability to run this country. For that matter, future candidates will face these same challenges as the politics of disaster become evidently worse with time.  The way leaders respond to these crisis will determine their political future and how the public see them in the years to come. Leaders must be quick and equipped to deal with these crisis as they happen and restore faith in the people who are suffering in order to maintain the confidence of the people. When it comes to natural disasters all Americans are hurt no matter their race, gender or creed leading them to turn to government to help them rebuild and put aside political differences for the greater good. If they don’t, the consequences to leader will haunt them in the court of public opinion.

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