When President Bush declared Florida a disaster area this week in
the wake of hurricane Wilma, the need was clear - a major hurricane
inflicting significant damage to a heavily populated state.
But when it comes to smaller-scale floods, fires, tornadoes, or
blizzards, what can prod a president to give the nod that paves the
way for federal aid? Politics, say several researchers. It not only
plays a sizable role, but it can also influence how much money
flows, once a president issues a disaster declaration.
Their conclusion, reached after scrutinizing patterns in federal
disaster spending over almost 45 years, is prompting renewed calls
for a more objective approach to deciding which disasters merit
federal declarations - and for clearer guidelines on how aid dollars
The decisionmaking approach, they say, is likely to become
increasingly important as disaster losses rise - driven largely by
growing populations and wealth in places known to shake, burn, and
face the drenching bluster of powerful storms.
The process will never be entirely free of politics, acknowledges
Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology
Policy Research at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"We shouldn't be that naieve," he says. "At the same time, you
want to believe that someone in Louisiana is being treated as fairly
as someone in West Virginia. It's a question of equity and fairness
in a democracy."
The latest evidence for the growth in disaster losses - and for
the potential imprint of politics - comes from a new county-by-
county, year-by-year tally covering the period from 1960 to 2003.
The information, culled from disparate sources within the federal
government, counts events that caused more than $50,000 in damage.
The data show losses rising at an ever-increasing rate. In 1960,
losses were running at roughly $2.5 billion in 2004 dollars. For
2003, losses reached nearly $15 billion.
The trend is expected to continue, adds Susan Cutter, director of
the Hazards Research Laboratory at the University of South Carolina
Last year each of the four hurricanes that struck Florida
inflicted more than $5 billion in damage, notes Dr. Cutter, who
built the database. This year President Bush has declared at least
35 major disasters. She and colleague Christopher Emrich reported
their results in the Oct. 11 issue of EOS, a publication of the
American Geophysical Union.
When she looked beyond the trends in losses, "what struck me was
how ineffective certain states have been in getting presidential
disaster declarations" over the past 40 years. For example, she
continues, North Carolina and South Carolina have seen significant
losses, yet have garnered relatively few disaster declarations,
while North Dakota also has endured similarly high losses and has
been "very good" at getting the declarations. …