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Disasters and Democracy: The Politics Of Extreme Natural Events

Disasters and Democracy: The Politics Of Extreme Natural Events

by Rutherford H. Platt

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In recent years, the number of presidential declarations of “major disasters” has skyrocketed. Such declarations make stricken areas eligible for federal emergency relief funds that greatly reduce their costs. But is federalizing the costs of disasters helping to lighten the overall burden of disasters or is it making matters worse? Does it remove


In recent years, the number of presidential declarations of “major disasters” has skyrocketed. Such declarations make stricken areas eligible for federal emergency relief funds that greatly reduce their costs. But is federalizing the costs of disasters helping to lighten the overall burden of disasters or is it making matters worse? Does it remove incentives for individuals and local communities to take measures to protect themselves? Are people more likely to invest in property in hazardous locations in the belief that, if worse comes to worst, the federal government will bail them out?.Disasters and Democracy addresses the political response to natural disasters, focusing specifically on the changing role of the federal government from distant observer to immediate responder and principal financier of disaster costs.

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Disasters and Democracy

The Politics of Extreme Natural Events

By Rutherford H. Platt


Copyright © 1999 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-263-1


Shouldering the Burden: Federal Assumption of Disaster Costs


Depression and war spawned a much larger, more paternalistic federal government. By the late 1940s, the American people had become accustomed to Social Security, federal housing programs, veterans benefits, farm subsidies, public higher education, federal aid to highways, and other federally supported social programs. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA) offered subsidized mortgage insurance and low-interest loans to help veterans and their young families buy new homes, thus stimulating the spread of tract subdivisions onto rural land (later termed "urban sprawl"). In 1949, Congress launched the federal urban renewal program to acquire, clear, and redevelop "blighted" neighborhoods in cities. In 1956, Congress authorized construction of the 42,500-mile Interstate Highway System with 90 percent federal funding, which further encouraged growth on the fringes of older cities. The Federal Tax Code offered further incentives to home ownership and land development. Laissez-faire was in tatters, but government was intervening in the private economy primarily to promote, not hinder, new investment and urbanization.

In the absence of restraint, some of this new development impinged on stream valleys, unstable hillsides, accessible forestlands, and coastal shorelines, not to mention prime farmland and critical natural habitat. Inevitably, a by-product of this process was the exposure of rising numbers of homes, workplaces, and lives to the risk of natural hazards. As losses mounted, or at least occurred at the doorsteps of the politically influential, Congress began, hesitantly at first, to devise a new set of programs and policies that collectively would transfer much of the financial costs of disasters from individuals and communities to the nation as a whole (in other words, to the federal taxpayer). In the process, an implicit new social compact was gradually forged between government and citizenry in which the former assumed a large share of disaster losses arising from the bad luck or bad judgment of the latter.


The nation's first general disaster assistance law—the Disaster Relief Act of 1950 (PL 81–875)—was a mere pinprick in relation to this backdrop of federal activism and grandiose construction programs. Three months after the outbreak of the Korean War and with the foul winds of McCarthyism beginning to waft through the nation's capital, it was adopted quietly with little study or debate. Its initial authorization was $5 million, paltry even then. But despite the conservative climate of the moment, it harked back to New Deal social legislation as a logical extension of social security, housing, education, VA medical care, and other social benefit programs. Initially, its benefits were limited to local public costs; later this would be expanded to include private enterprise and individuals as well. The 1950 law marked a threshold in national policy concerning disasters, from an era of disinterest to one of limited federal involvement (Table 1-1). It was the modest forerunner of a long series of acts that would cumulatively commit the United States to providing tens of billions of dollars in assistance to individuals and communities stricken by natural and other disasters.

This obscure law was introduced by Rep. Harold Hagen of Minnesota, whose immediate concern was to relieve the financial burdens of repairing the farm-to-market roads and bridges in recently flooded areas along the Red River in Minnesota and North Dakota (the same region where prolonged floods would attract national attention and $2 billion in federal assistance in 1997). Its sponsor presented a long list of past special acts of Congress, along with other examples of federal response to disasters through the Army Corps of Engineers, the Farm Credit Administration, and the Bureau of Public Roads. But unlike those ad hoc measures, the new legislation would prove to be the first permanent and general disaster law passed by Congress, and its concepts would become the model of all succeeding federal disaster laws, albeit vastly expanded in scope and cost. Its sketchy legislative history states that the law: "will cover disaster occurring anywhere in the entire country instead of a particular state or locality. [It will] provide for an orderly and continuing method of rendering assistance to the states and local governments in alleviating suffering and damage resulting from a major peacetime disaster...." The means provided to accomplish that mission were, however, parsimonious as compared with the disaster cornucopia of the 1990s. The several hurricanes that struck the East Coast during the mid-1950s introduced the public to the new concept of federal disaster assistance, albeit in limited form (Figure 1-1).

The peacetime mission of the fledgling program was to be overshadowed for decades by the Cold War. It was initially assigned to the Housing and Home Finance Agency, which administered the federal urban renewal program. But from 1953 until 1974, the program was housed within a series of civil defense agencies where it languished in relative obscurity in the midst of preparations for nuclear war (Table 1-2). In 1974, it returned to the arena of community planning under the newly created Federal Disaster Assistance Administration of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. From there, in 1979, it was transferred to the new Federal Emergency Management Agency, an amalgam of civilian and military preparedness programs established by President Jimmy Carter. In the 1980s, under the Reagan Administration, FEMA pursued a chimera called "integrated emergency management" that was intended to protect the American people from anything between a local flood and all-out nuclear war. Since 1993, under the Clinton Administration, FEMA has finally shed its Cold War baggage and has evolved into a genuinely domestic program with a strong emphasis on natural hazard mitigation. (See Chapter 3.)

After 1950, and more emphatically after the Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1970, the federal government assumed a permanent role as the primary source of funds and expertise to deal with major and some not-so-major disasters. The present dominance of federal assistance in disaster recovery was not intended or foreseen in the original 1950 law. As originally established by Congress, the federal disaster assistance program was to be:

1. Limited as to the scope of federal assistance to be supplied

2. Contingent upon a presidential disaster declaration finding that federal assistance is required to supplement state and local capabilities

3. Limited as to amounts of federal funding to be allocated to disaster relief

As discussed in following sections, the first of these limitations—scope of assistance—was gradually modified by amendments to the act toward a much broader range of benefits. The second—that presidential declarations should assure that federal assistance is supplementary—still receives lip service in the current version of the disaster assistance law (the 1988 Stafford Act), but has been found to be empty rhetoric by various policy reviews. Third, the cost of disaster assistance has risen from the initial appropriation of $5 million in 1950 to levels as high as $10 billion in 1994. Each of these limitations is considered in the following sections.

Scope of Assistance

At first, federal assistance was narrowly limited to emergency assistance and repairs to local public infrastructure. The 1950 act authorized only (1) the "utilization or loan" to states and local governments of federal equipment, supplies, facilities, personnel, and other resources; (2) distribution of food and medicine through the American Red Cross; (3) donation of surplus federal property to states and local governments; and (4) "performing on public or private lands protective and other work essential for the preservation of life and property, clearing debris and wreckage, making emergency repairs to and temporary replacements of public facilities. of local governments damaged or destroyed in such major disaster ..." (emphasis added).

The rapid expansion in the scope of allowable benefits through 1974 has been documented by Mileti and through 1980 by May. In 14 acts between 1950 and 1980, the U.S. Congress vastly enlarged the disaster assistance functions of the federal government. Some of these laws responded to a specific disaster (e.g., the 1964 Alaskan Earthquake Assistance Act) while others amended or replaced the generic 1950 act (e.g., the 1974 Federal Disaster Relief Act). (See Table 1-1 for a partial list.) Among the benefits added to the basic federal disaster program during this period were temporary housing, grants for repair of damaged state property, unemployment compensation to disaster victims, legal and mental health services, individual and family grants, food coupons, and payments to communities to offset lost tax revenue.

A watershed in the federal role was crossed around 1969 with the authorization of benefits to individuals. Prior to that time, federal assistance was directed primarily to public units of government.

It was not until the impact of Hurricane Camille on the Gulf Coast and Virginia and West Virginia that the Congress decided that a more formalized program of assistance to individuals should be instituted. Part of this was accomplished on October 1, 1969, with the passage of PL 91-79. [Additional acts passed in 1970 and 1974] continued and expanded this institutionalization of disaster assistance for individuals.

Today, the scope of both individual assistance (IA) and public assistance (PA) is very broad. IA includes temporary housing, individual and family grants, unemployment compensation, food coupons, crisis counseling, and legal services. PA covers debris removal, repair, restoration, or replacement of public facilities of many types (including beaches and trees in certain cases), community disaster loans to cover shortfalls in local tax revenue due to a disaster (subject to cancellation),7 and emergency response costs of states and local governments. All of the foregoing are subject to a 25 percent nonfederal cost share, unless it is reduced or waived by the president. (Related programs such as the National Flood Insurance Program and the Small Business Administration Disaster Loan Program are considered later in this chapter.)

IA and PA programs differ significantly with respect to eligibility. While both are contingent upon a presidential declaration and limited to counties thereby listed, most individual assistance is further limited by financial need criteria. Individual and family grants (IFGs), which are currently capped at about $14,000 per household, require that the recipients be too poor to qualify for a low-interest disaster loan from the Small Business Administration or other federal assistance. Temporary housing assistance requires that the applicant's primary residence has become unlivable and any insurance benefits available to the applicant are deducted from the federal grant.

By contrast, public assistance has no means test. Communities within declared counties are eligible for federal reimbursement of approved disaster-related costs to restore or replace damaged public facilities, regardless of the economic status of the community or its residents. Thus, financially hard-pressed individuals who do not meet the means criterion, as well as poor victims of nondeclared disasters, are ineligible for federal individual assistance. But affluent communities covered by declarations may receive between 75 percent and 100 percent of their recovery costs from the federal government, even if they carry or could afford to carry disaster insurance. As argued in the Conclusion, this inequity between IA and PA deserves reconsideration.

Presidential Declarations: The "Supplemental" Myth

Throughout the history of the federal disaster relief program, it has been steadfastly maintained in statute, regulation, and agency dogma that federal assistance is supplementary to state, local, and private resources. The legislative history to the 1950 Act clearly stated that limitation.

The purpose of the bill is to provide for an orderly and continuing method of rendering assistance to the state and local governments in alleviating suffering and damage resulting from a major peacetime disaster and in restoring public facilities and in supplementing whatever aid the state or local governments can render themselves (emphasis added).

Federal disaster assistance laws and regulations have never explicated how to assess what "aid the state or local governments can render themselves." The key action that unleashes federal benefits to stricken areas is a disaster declaration by the president of the United States, pursuant to a request from the governor of an affected state. Criteria for the issuance of a disaster declaration have been notoriously vague. The 1988 Stafford Act, still in effect in 1998, restates the language of the 1974 act, which in turn was based on the 1950 law requiring "... a finding that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments and that federal assistance is necessary." FEMA's regulations only slightly embellish the statutory language in providing that a declaration is appropriate if:

1. The situation is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments; and

2. Federal assistance under the [Stafford] Act is necessary to supplement the efforts and available resources of the state, local governments, disaster relief organizations, and compensation by insurance for disaster-related losses10 (emphasis added).

Since the formation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979, requests from governors are channeled through FEMA regional directors and are processed by FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., which transmits them to the White House for action. Ultimately, the decision as to whether or not to issue a declaration is a political choice by the president, often influenced by congressional and media attention.

The types of disasters to which the presidential declaration process applies were defined in the 1950 act to include "flood, drought, fire, hurricane, earthquake, storm, or other catastrophe...." This list has been broadened by legislative amendments to the following, as of 1998:

"Major disaster" means any natural catastrophe (including any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, wind driven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, or drought), or, regardless of cause, any fire, flood, or explosion, in any part of the United States, which in the determination of the President causes damage of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant major disaster assistance under this Act to supplement the efforts and available resources of states, local governments, and disaster relief organizations in alleviating the damage, loss, hardship, or suffering caused thereby ... (emphasis indicates language retained from the 1950 act).

Beginning with the 1974 Federal Disaster Relief Act, a second category of presidential declaration was authorized for "emergencies."

"Emergency" means any occasion or instance for which, in the determination of the president, federal assistance is needed to supplement state and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States.

However, the legal or functional distinction between an "emergency" and a "major disaster" has never been clearly specified and most declarations have been designated as "major disasters." Between January 1, 1953, and August 19, 1994, a total of 1258 major disaster declarations and 114 emergency declarations were issued (plus 108 fire suppression declarations. Overall, about two-thirds of requests for declarations submitted to the president were granted.


Excerpted from Disasters and Democracy by Rutherford H. Platt. Copyright © 1999 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Rutherford H. Platt is professor of geography and planning law at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a member of the Illinois Bar. He is author of Land Use and Society (Island Press, 1996) and The Ecological City (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994).

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