Rowboat Federalism: The Politics of U.S. Disaster Relief

Michael Hoover, “Rowboat Federalism: The Politics of U.S. Disaster Relief; Part 1: History: The Problems Are Inherent,” 28 November 2005

Part 2: Politics: The Electoral Connection and Beyond

The U.S. government’s role in disaster relief began expanding in the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt authorized Depression-era federal agencies to repair flood-damaged roads and bridges in several states. Congress regularized this practice in 1947 and three years later, in 1950, created the first permanent relief fund, granting presidents broad discretionary power to decide what constituted a disaster eligible for federal aid. Dwight Eisenhower signed the first such declaration in 1953 following tornadoes in Georgia. Since that time, presidents have issued 1616 disaster declarations (the most recent on 21 November 2005 in response to a severe winter storm and record snow fall in North Dakota). In addition, pursuant to legislation passed in the early 1970s, presidents have signed several thousand “emergency relief” statements providing smaller federal commitments to affected areas.

Federal disaster relief to state and local communities is predicated upon formal gubernatorial requests. No specific criteria have ever been established for how presidents are to consider these requests. Upon their receipt, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends approval or rejection; in the former instance, the agency suggests either “disaster” or “emergency” aid. Over time, presidents have granted about two-thirds of the disaster requests that governors have sent them, with approval rising to over 80% for the last three occupants of the White House. Higher assent during the Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 years is correlated with the 1988 Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act enlarging presidential discretion in disaster relief decisions as well as upping available federal resources. Significantly, congressional willingness to allow unilateral executive action in disaster relief matters has not prevented some legislators from receiving the potential “constituency service” benefits of disaster relief; FEMA payments are higher per capita in states with members who sit on one of a number of committees that oversee the agency.   

As the 1980s were drawing to a close, so too was a two-decade lull in the incidence of natural hazard activity in the U.S, which partly explains the lower average number of disaster declarations during that period. Post-Stafford, however, increased environmental turbulence in the 1990s — a higher frequency of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes coinciding, paradoxically, with the decade named “International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction” — converged with round-the-clock media coverage, focusing unprecedented public attention on the conditions that such calamities wrought and their victims. Few studies of the impact that “natural disasters” have on election outcomes exist, but those that do indicate some voters “punish” elected officials at the ballot box. While presidents appear to have seized upon disaster relief, in part, because of “looking presidential” photo-ops, they have also recognized the potential “electoral connection” of influencing voter behavior by spreading around some federal largesse. Among pre-Stafford chief executives, only Richard Nixon issued a significantly higher number of election-year disaster declarations. His 48 declarations in 1972 topped the list until 1996, when Bill Clinton set the existing record with 75 during his re-election year; not far behind sits George W. Bush’s 68 declarations in 2004.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 (the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history prior to Katrina) was the pivotal moment in presidential “disaster relief” politics. Despite a penchant for issuing disaster declarations (an average of 39 per year, more than any president before him), Bush 41’s administration had been roundly criticized for its inadequate response to previous situations (i.e., Hurricane Hugo, the Loma Prieta earthquake). This time, his tardy response to the calamity in South Florida and the media pictures of him looking forlorn and uncomfortable were in stark contrast to candidate Clinton who was seen holding children, walking among the storm victims, and pitching in to help with debris removal. No matter how many references Bush made to the hurricane in the weeks that followed, the president failed the “perception” test: that of a leader providing both emotional and material support to people in need. While it is likely an exaggeration to claim that his 1992 defeat was due to Andrew (Bush, in fact, carried Florida by a slim 2% margin, 40% to 39% for Clinton, but Ross Perot’s 20% take was certainly a factor in the outcome), a Pew Research Center survey did find that the story was the second most closely watched of the year.

Both Bush 41 and his successor employed weather-related disaster relief declarations according to a state’s “electoral competitiveness” and the number of its electoral votes. The image-conscious Clinton issued a then-all-time-high average of 47 such declarations per year; moreover, he effectively employed the tactic of “going public” (the term used by political scientist Samuel Kernell), making a point of traveling to impacted areas and expressing concern for those adversely affected. On one hand, observers contend that overt partisanship drove Clinton-era disaster assessment, particularly, when it involved “marginal” instances in “swing” states. On the other, his restoration of Davis-Bacon “prevailing wage” requirements that his predecessor had suspended for portions of Florida struck by Andrew was more than offset by his contribution to rowboat federalism: concessions to congressional legislation requiring future disaster relief be paid for by budget cuts. Programs initially targeted by the 1995 Republican majority included job training, legal services, low-income housing and energy assistance, and surplus food allocation.

No one, however, conveys presidential “disaster relief” politics more clearly than George W. Bush who, after one term, averaged 54 disaster declarations per year (he has issued 43 thus far in 2005). First, the “electoral connection” is evident; taking office following the contentious and contested 2000 election, his very first approval granted younger brother Jeb’s request for crop damage assistance in Florida, not only the state where sibling Bush was and is governor, but the state whose controversial 25 electoral votes — thanks to a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court — put him into the White House. Then, there are the disparities between the Administration’s extensive and timely, in fact, pro-active response to hurricanes sweeping through Florida, a state considered critical to the president’s re-election chances, in 2004, and its criminally dreadful inaction following Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in 2005. Equipment, personnel, and supplies were pre-positioned throughout Florida, and the president, ever mindful of his father’s experience following Andrew, was highly visible, even rolling up his sleeves and distributing ice for the television cameras. Residents in all 67 counties received emergency relief, including payment to thousands of home-owners in areas that were not subject to hurricane-force winds in any of four storms that hit the state.

Neither the possibility that New Orleans was a “disaster waiting to happen” (based on the findings of a 2001 U.S. Geological Survey study) nor the magnitude of Katrina lessens government’s shameful performance prior to as well as after the hurricane struck. The system of federalism is, in fact, partly to blame. On one hand, a crucial 24 hours was lost when the city’s mayor was reluctant to order a mandatory evacuation because of concerns that the municipality could be held liable for closing hotels and businesses. On the other, the “call” to do so should not have been his to make after the president, granting a request from Louisiana’s governor, issued a disaster declaration two days before the storm made landfall. At that point, under a plan adopted by the Bush Administration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should have assumed responsibility for coordinating all government operations related to the declaration. In this instance, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff assigned “point” duties to FEMA director Michael Brown, who proved to be — at best — incompetent. Furthermore, the response plan authorizes the DHS secretary to implement federal action through a “domestic management” directive, something that Chertoff did not do until the day after Katrina had flooded 80% of New Orleans. Meanwhile, Bush did not put an early end to a month-long Texas vacation for another day after that, and he did not travel to the Gulf Coast for an additional 48 hours following his return to Washington.

Dead in New Orleans
Source: BBC, “In Pictures: Aid Effort Gathers Pace” (3 September 2005)

See, also, Cryptome, “Eyeballing Katrina Dead,” Parts 1 and 2

Bush’s share of the blame actually precedes the catastrophic events; his administration had shrunk already-limited federal disaster mitigation efforts to a bare minimum. Among other things, this included FEMA denial of funding requests from Louisiana in 2004 for a project involving the 20,000 buildings in the state damaged from past flooding (note that Louisiana had more buildings damaged from previous flooding than any other state). In an eerie coincidence, perhaps, the administration began privatizing New Orleans disaster relief at that time when FEMA contracted with Innovative Emergency Management (IEM) to develop a “catastrophic hurricane disaster plan” for the city. In an example of ideology triumphant, the agency has since signed an agreement to have the company conduct a comprehensive study of “response and recovery” in the aftermath of Katrina. Well, here’s something that IEM researchers might consider: In Florida in 2004, FEMA paid for more than 300 funerals despite the fact that hurricane-related deaths numbered slightly over 100. In New Orleans in 2005, where the official death toll was over 1000 persons, dead bodies floated down sidewalks and streets, left to rot wherever they had drifted after the waters began to recede. Rowboat federalism indeed!


Further Reading

Arceneaux, Kevin and Robert Stein. n.d. “God Is Not on the Ballot: Natural Disasters, Responsibility, Attribution, and Voting Behavior.”

Downton, Mary W. and Roger A. Pielke. 2001. “Discretion Without Accountability: Politics, Flood, Damage, and Climate.” Natural Hazards Review 2.4: 157-266.

“Federally Declared Disasters.”

Garrett, Thomas A. and Russell S. Sobel. 2003. “The Political Economy of FEMA Disaster Payments.” Economic Inquiry 41.3: 496-509.

Innovative Emergency Management, Inc. (IEM). 2005.

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “Public Attentiveness to News Stories.”

Pocock, Emil (ed.). “Disasters in the United States, 1650-2005.”

Reeves, Andrew. 2005. “Political Disaster? Presidential Disaster Declarations and Electoral Politics.”

City on Fire Michael Hoover is a professor of political science at Seminole Community College. Hoover co-authored City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. with Lisa Odham Stokes. Hoover serves on the editorial board of New Political Science, journal of the caucus for a new political science.