Jessica Weinkle

science, risk, politics... and society

Disaster Politics, Representation and Resiliency

President Trump's handling of recent hurricane disasters has illustrated a long recognized connection between disaster aid and governmental representation:  

Annual differences in declarations during seven presidential administrations do not correspond to the president’s political party affiliation. In addition, a state’s ability to pay has not been a major consideration in presidential decisions about whether a disaster warrants federal assistance. However, presidential decisions are related to whether or not the president is running for reelection. Declarations are also related to changes in legislative and administrative policy. (Downton and Pielke 2001
States politically important to the president have a higher rate of disaster declaration by the president, and disaster expenditures are higher in states having congressional representation on FEMA oversight committees. Election year impacts are also found. Our models predict that nearly half of all disaster relief is motivated politically rather than by need. The findings reject a purely altruistic model of FEMA assistance and question the relative effectiveness of government versus private disaster relief. (Garrett and Sobel 2003)
Presidents’ decisions to approve or deny governor requests for declarations seem to rest on matters of law and public management; however, their decisions also involve electoral and partisan politics. Differentiating between political and type-of-event variables may help explain presidential decision making regarding declarations of major disaster, which not only are indicative of federal-state relations and but also ultimately have implications for grants of federal aid to state governments. (Sylves and Búzás 2007)
[In examining] four potential political factors affecting this distribution: swing states versus safe states, a president's base states versus the opposing party's base states, the presence of co-partisan presidents and governors, and the proximity of the next presidential election. I find that the effects vary by administration, with Bill Clinton not appearing to make partisan decisions in this way, while his successors include these factors when making the decisions. These findings demonstrate the presence of partisan political calculations in the distribution of disaster aid and also highlight differences in the ways power is handled in different presidential administrations. (Stramp 2013)
And the list goes on... (e.g. Platt 1999) Often, (not always but really very often) authors write that the decision to release aid and its apparent connection to politics is an indicator of the overall moral impropriety of disaster aid itself.  There appears another part though.  When a group is not politically important, they are easy to ignore.  
...first, the 1988 Stafford Act expanded federal coverage to all categories of disasters, added a significant range of individual types of assistance, and provided extensive funding for recovery planning. Second, the election effects on disaster decisions increased over time whereas the impact of social and economic vulnerability (measured by scope of disaster) declined. Third, the changes affected governors more than presidents, and the choices of governors drove those of presidents. The analysis underscores the increasingly political nature of the disaster decision-making process, as well as the difficulty in emphasising mitigation and preparedness as intensively as response and recovery. Proactive intervention yields fewer political rewards than responsiveness. (Daniels 2013)

The current US President Trump rebukes and insults desperate Puerto Rico considering them 'ingrates' as the territory's mayor and emergency officials struggle to overcome challenges of a devastated infrastructure.  Significant to this storyline is Puerto Rican's unrepresented US citizens status.  They can move freely between the island and the mainland but they cannot vote in national elections.  Their ability to seek vengeance in the polls is nil (especially when coupled with severe gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts if they were to move to the US).  Thus, there appears little interest in the White House to curry favor of Puerto Ricans rather, they are used as a political symbol to curry favor of his political base who care not for ethnic diversity and/or who have long sought to do away with Federal disaster aid anyway.  

Perhaps one lesson learned is the significance of political representation for the resiliency of a state and community.  Texas for instance benefited from congressional and presidential efforts to efficiently make decisions about the debt ceiling to ensure a release of aid to the state (despite several Texas Representatives voting against aid to their state).  Florida regularly benefits from the controversy around windstorm insurance- an integral component of mortgage lending, instability in windstorm insurance availability affects state and national economic concerns around real estate and investment.  Indeed, as Hurricane Irma approached Florida, the event was watched internationally with explicit financial concerns (sadly, less humanitarian concern).  

As the situation with Puerto Rico unfolds the forefront of disaster politics appears to be taking share around matters of rebuilding (i.e. rebuilding by who, for who and how).  Consider the way, President Trump reportedly frames discussions about Puerto Rico aid

“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort — it will end up being one of the biggest ever — will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” he said. “We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe.”
Earlier he tweeted: “The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!”

While Houston is forging ahead on the rebuilding front, one may remember the quagmire that New Orleans faced in the post-Katrina rebuilding era.  At the time, the overriding question appeared to be less about how to rebuild New Orleans, but if it would at all. I recall many working to allow the sinking city to embody the legend of Atlantis.  Indeed, it has rebuilt but in a gentrified way becoming whiter and wealthier

In thinking about resiliency, a fruitful area of discussion would seem to be the resiliency of what? resiliency for who?  In Florida, the efforts seem to be towards a resilient economy (less so the community).  In Houston, there seems a movement towards resilient infrastructure.  In New Orleans, it seemed to be resiliency of the southern elite.  It will be interesting to see what is focused on in Puerto Rico as efforts move from life saving towards towards rebuilding.