--an invited comment
--an invited comment
Despite the Clinton Administration's notable improvements in national disaster policies, a serious flaw remains: the essentially political nature of the presidential disaster declaration (PDD) process. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act provides federal disaster relief to states and local communities that receive a disaster declaration from the president, generally when one or more counties are declared eligible for federal assistance. Declarations are made at the president's discretion, and presidents have differed markedly in their use of that authority. Guidelines governing the president's decision include consideration of a state's ability to respond, but these guidelines are vague, leaving the process open to influence from media coverage, cronyism, and political pressure.
One reason it is difficult to assess the PDD process is the lack of unified accounting for federal disaster costs, which are not tracked in a comprehensive or consistent manner. A complex mix of federal agencies and programs provide the disaster assistance made available by presidential declarations. Consequently, the results of presidential discretion are not subject to the usual scrutiny placed on most government activities.
During the past 20 years, the number and cost of presidential disaster declarations has increased substantially. Figure 1 shows the average annual number of PDD requests and approvals under each administration since Eisenhower. President Reagan (1981-88) averaged 24 declarations per year; President Bush (1989-92) 40 per year; and President Clinton, in his first term (1993-96), 53 per year.
To some, including influential policy makers, this suggests an alarming trend. For example, former FEMA Director James Lee Witt attributed the increase in disaster declarations and federal costs to "more frequent and severe weather calamities" (NOAA, 2000). However, others have observed that mounting costs are more a result of increasing population and wealth. Our research suggests that, where federal costs are concerned, an additional factor should be considered: the role of presidential discretion in disaster declarations.
To compare how seven presidents made use of their discretionary authority in the disaster declaration process, we analyzed flood-related PDDs from 1965 through 1997. (A majority of PDDs are related to floods.) Because there is great year-to-year variation in weather and in damage, we also looked at precipitation and flood damage data collected by the National Weather Service (which are independent of the disaster declaration process), as well as several measures of a state's "ability to pay" for its response to a disaster.
Since 1950, criteria for issuing a PDD have required "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" (P.L. 100-707, sec. 401). Yet, an analysis of declarations for each state from 1983 to 1997 show little relationship to a state's ability to pay.
Table 1 summarizes some of the information used in our study. President Clinton issued the most flood-related declarations and included the most counties. Can this be explained by the fact that national precipitation and flood damage were also at their highest during his administration?
The short answer is "no." After controlling for precipitation and damage, we found statistically significant differences between presidents in the numbers of disasters de-clared. But, perhaps surprisingly, the number of disaster declarations is unrelated to a president's political party. For example, the number of declarations issued by Ronald Reagan differed significantly from the numbers issued by Richard Nixon and the elder George Bush.
Consider the Reagan and Bush administrations in more detail. Average annual flood damage was at its lowest (of the seven presidents considered) during the Bush administration, yet the mean numbers of disaster declarations and sites were substantially higher under Bush than under Reagan.
In 1987, during the Reagan administration, Texas incurred $700 million (adjusted for inflation in 1995 dollars) in flood damage, but not a single flood-related declaration was issued. In both 1989 and 1990, during the Bush administration, Texas had approximately $400 million in damage each year and received PDDs covering 103 counties in 1989 and 64 counties in 1990.
President Clinton was generous with disaster declarations and included more counties in his declarations than did the other presidents. The median number of counties per declaration ranged from five under Reagan to 11 under Clinton. Officials interviewed by Richard Sylves of the University of Delaware suggested that California's electoral votes influenced President Clinton's decision to waive the need for preliminary damage assessments, allowing all counties that applied to be included in the California flood disaster declarations of 1995.
|President||Fiscal Years||Number||Disaster Declarations||Counties Included||Damage (millions 1995 dollars)|
Although the differences among presidents do not follow political party lines, they do correspond to some general policy orientations. President Reagan's small number of PDDs is consistent with his stated goal of reducing the role of the federal government and returning responsibilities to the states. In contrast, President Clinton put a priority on federal disaster response, expanding the role of FEMA and the prominence of its director.
Our research lends support to those calling for more rigor in the disaster declaration process, such as the Association of State Floodplain Managers, which recently declared that "vague and overly generous criteria for formal disaster declarations have created disincentives for citizens, local communities, and states to take responsibility for addressing their flood hazards or protecting their floodplain resource (see the Observer, Vol. XXV, No. 1, p. 7).
The federal government has within its authority and control an ability to dramatically reduce--or expand--the costs it bears for disasters. The presidential disaster declaration process should entail careful trade-offs between needed assistance in disasters and the positive and negative incentives that arise from the availability of that assistance. These trade-offs will be better made in the clear light of accountability for the president's discretionary actions. Without such scrutiny even the best laid policies and plans for reducing federal disaster costs are likely to fall short of their objectives.
Mary W. Downton and Roger A. Pielke, Jr., Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
Sign Up Now!
As part of its project, "Developing Guidance and Expertise on Sustainable Recovery from Disaster," funded by the Public Entity Risk Institute (see the Observer, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, p. 17), the Natural Hazards Center is compiling a list of people from throughout the U.S. with experience, knowledge, or special expertise in disaster recovery and/or community sustainability. The center envisions a central source of information to which a city manager, public works official, citizen activist, or other concerned person can turn for advice, information, or even on-site recovery assistance.
Specifically, the database will include experts who can help localities understand, plan for, and execute holistic recovery activities and policies that will enhance a community's sustainability, including resilience in the face of hazards, environmental quality, livability, economic vitality, and social equity. It will include names, contact information, and brief background data (such as area of expertise and prior disaster experience).
Areas in which experts are being sought are: recovery, hazard mitigation, intergenerational equity, social equity, economic development, business recovery, environmental quality, consensus building, public participation, livability, smart growth, and related topics.
Having one's name listed in the database does not constitute a commitment to participate in any future disaster recovery. However, the information may be made accessible, perhaps via a Web site, at a later date.
Persons who would like to be listed in the database, or who know of other persons or groups who ought to be, should e-mail the Hazards Center's Program Manager, Jacki Monday, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The world was hit by a record number of natural disasters last year, and global warming and a rising population could aggravate the situation in the future, according to Munich Reinsurance's (Munich Re's) annual summary of global disasters, announced in a press release on December 28, 2000 (see the press releases listed under "press/media" at www.munichre.com). Not to be outdone, on January 10, 2001, Swiss Reinsurance (Swiss Re) released its annual rep ort, with similar, but not identical, numbers (see www.swissre.com/e/media/news.html); the Swiss Re report covers some human-caused, as well as natural, disasters.
According to Munich Re, although the number of natural disasters rose by over 100 last year, to 850, the number of deaths was much lower than in 1999 because less-populated areas were affected. Some 10,000 people died as a result of these disasters, compared to 75,000 in 1999. Natural disasters in 2000 caused an estimated $30 billion in losses (compared to $100 billion in 1999), with insured losses of $7.5 billion (compared to $22 billion). The Swiss Re report cites $38 billion and $11 billion in total and insured losses for 2000.
A lack of major earthquakes and a relatively moderate cyclone season, combined with the small number of disasters in heavily populated areas, made 2000 a comparatively inexpensive year. The cyclone season in the Pacific and the North Atlantic produced a typical number of hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones in 2000, but fortunately, exposed countries were not severely affected, except for Taiwan, South Korea, and Belize.
According to Munich Re, the year's greatest disaster (in terms of people affected) was the flooding that left 500,000 homeless in Mozambique. Collectively, windstorms were also near the top of the year's list, with more than 300 events. The wind events dominate the insurers' loss figures and account for 73% of insured losses.
At the same time, as in previous years, floods, including severe inundation in India and Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and Britain were also a significant cause of damage (23% of insured losses); Swiss Re cites the India/Bangladesh floods as causing the single greatest loss of life--1,200 people. The Swiss company also notes that the number of fatalities due to human-caused disasters--almost 9,000--was significantly above the average for the past decade.
Munich Re points to storm surges, mudflows, and landslides in the Swiss and Italian Alps in mid-October as generating economic losses of about $8.5 billion, with probable insured losses of roughly $470 million.
In the U.S., Munich Re mentions the summer's forest fires in the western United States, especially New Mexico, as the most notable natural disasters. Swiss Re cites winter storms, springtime tornadoes, and other severe weather as causing the greatest insured losses.
Despite the moderate losses in 2000 (there was only one $1 billion disaster, compared to seven in 1999), Munich Re is quick to point out that there is no reason to be sanguine; the year's statistics are probably an anomaly in the trend in recent decades toward greater losses due to increased population and property at risk. Moreover, a likely increase in natural catastrophes due to global climate change could also exacerbate losses.
Munich Re has recently published a CD-ROM in two languages (German/English)--World of Natural Hazards--that provides a multimedia source of information on global catastrophes. The CD furnishes the user with a simple and fast method of identifying and quantifying the natural hazards threatening any point on the globe. It provides a modular world map of natural hazards; a tool for identifying hazards at any point on earth; information and a glossary on hazards science and related insurance issues; a catalog of world-wide catastrophes; a country-by-country database; information on earthquake and windstorm scales; additional information on topics of special interest, such as climate change, El Niño, and megacities; and details on services provided by Munich Re. More information about the CD can be found on the Munich Re web site: www.munichre.com. It is available for 50 Euros (order #302-02650) from Munich Reinsurance, Königinstrasse 107, 80802 Munich, Germany.
UNT's Emergency Administration and Planning Program--the first and largest undergraduate emergency management degree program in the nation--announced that it will begin offering a five-course distance learning Certificate in Emergency Administration and Planning during the winter/spring 2001 semester. In addition, in cooperation with the Graduate Department of Public Administration, the program has developed a formal Concentration in Emergency Management within the Masters of Public Administration Program. For more information, contact David McEntire, Emergency Administration and Planning Program, University of North Texas, Department of Public Administration, P.O. Box 310617, Denton, TX 76203-0617; (940) 565-2996; fax: (940) 396-8771: e-mail: email@example.com.
OSU offers an Environmental Management Ph.D. Program with a focus on Disaster and Emergency Management. This focus area requires a minimum of 60 hours beyond the masters degree (including a minimum of 36 hours of course work) or 90 hours beyond the bachelors degree (with a minimum of 69 hours of course work), plus a dissertation. For more information, contact Talya Henderson, Environmental Science Graduate Program, 002 Life Science East, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078-3011; (888) 477-7422 or (405) 744-9229; fax: (405) 744-7673; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; WWW: www.seic.okstate. edu/envinst/envisci.
At a joint conference held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, last summer, New England governors and premiers from eastern Canada signed an "International Emergency Management Assistance Memorandum of Understanding," allowing the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and the provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland to provide assistance to one another to manage emergencies and disasters. The compact also provides for joint planning, exercises, testing, and other training.
The states and provinces recognized that many emergencies could exceed their individual capabilities and resources and that intergovernmental and international cooperation is essential in such circumstances in order to ensure prompt response and the full and effective utilization of resources. This year, officials from the various states and provinces are establishing procedures, plans, and protocols to put the compact into effect.
The complete compact, outlining all duties, responsibilities, compensation arrangements, limitations, and requirements is available from the Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat web site: www.scics.gc.ca/cinfo00/85007918_e.html.
The 2000 wildfires in the western U.S. demonstrated that technologies such as remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) significantly increase the ability of governments to respond to disasters. Reliable knowledge about landscape, patterns of human development, and the characteristics of natural disasters is critical to understanding risks and planning response to disasters in the western U.S. The governors of these states believe improved use of such information will help avoid the "often acrimonious conflicts" over disaster response resources that have occurred in the recent past.
In December 2000, the Western Governors' Association (WGA) approved a resolution supporting the development of a framework among the states to improve data dissemination, application development, and training.
Policy Resolution 00-034: Utility and Use of GIS and Remote Sensing Technologies to Support Disaster Services Role at the Local, State, and Federal Level, can be found on the WGA web site: www.westgov.org/wga/policy/00/00034.pdf. Printed copies can be obtained from the WGA, 1515 Cleveland Place, Suite 200, Denver, CO 80202-5114; (303) 623-9378; fax: (303) 534-7309.
In the United States, landslides cause 25 to 50 deaths annually, billions of dollars in economic losses, and major environmental degradation. Landslide hazards and resultant losses will increase until the United States adopts a comprehensive and coordinated strategy to alleviate these risks at the federal, state, local, and private levels. Today no such strategy exists. States, local governments, transportation departments, and numerous federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), handle landslide hazards independently of each other.
In 1999, Congress asked the USGS to prepare a strategy that would involve all parties with responsibility for dealing with landslides (Public Law No. 106-113). The recently completed report, National Landslide Hazards Mitigation Strategy: A Framework for Loss Reduction (USGS Open-File Report 00-450, 2000, free) is the result of an ongoing initiative by the Survey that included input from landslide experts attending numerous stakeholder meetings and advice from representatives of scientific and professional societies as well as federal and state agencies.
Built on the premise that no single agency, level of government, or program can comprehensively address losses from landslides, the strategy outlines a new public-private partnership that encourages the use of scientific information, maps, and monitoring to aid emergency management, land-use planning, and public and private policy decisions to reduce landslide losses. It calls on the federal government, in partnership with state and local governments, to provide leadership, coordination, research support, and incentives for landslide hazard mitigation.
The Strategy has nine major goals:
Implementation of this strategy will require increased funding, better coordination among levels of government, and new partnerships between government, academia, and the private sector. Specifically, the strategy proposes:
The USGS is currently distributing this report and working with state geological surveys and scientific and professional societies to promote implementation of the strategy. As one of the first tasks of the strategy, the USGS and the American Planning Association (APA) are developing guidelines for land-use planners to implement landslide hazard mitigation measures. To obtain information about this project, see the Observer, Vol. XXV, No. 2, p. 5 or visit the APA web site: www.planning.org/Landslides.
To obtain a copy of the National Strategy to Reduce Losses from Landslide Hazards: A Framework for Loss Reduction (USGS Open-File Report 00-450), visit the USGS Landslide Hazards Program homepage: landslides.usgs.gov or write to the USGS Information Service, Box 25286, Denver, CO 80225. For more information on the proposed strategy, contact Paula L. Gori and Elliott C. Spiker, USGS, 906 National Center, Reston, VA 20192; e-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resistance to disasters is a key characteristic of sustainable communities. To encourage communities to become more disaster-resistant, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently released two publications. The first, Planning for a Sustainable Future: The Link Between Hazard Mitigation and Livability (Publication No. 364, 2000, 43 pp., free), illustrates how communities, either in planning for hazard mitigation before disaster strikes or after one has occurred, can become more resilient by integrating the concepts and principles of sustainable development into all phases of natural hazards planning.
This booklet should be helpful to a broad range of individuals and organizations, including local decision-makers, land-use planners, emergency managers, and those concerned with the economic vitality of their communities. It will help each of these individuals understand how the decisions they make and the actions they take in disaster planning, recovery, and mitigation can create a more sustainable community. The booklet provides examples of communities that have successfully implemented sustainable development practices and describes federal programs that can assist in this process. The "Resources" section lists numerous publications, web sites, and sources of technical assistance and funding.
The second publication, Rebuilding for a More Sustainable Future--An Operational Framework (Publication No. 365, 2000, 172 pp., free), is a useful reference for federal, state, and local emergency management officials. It identifies potential resources that can help make communities less vulnerable to disasters and more sustainable. It was created to guide FEMA sustainability planners, who, following a presidential disaster declaration, evaluate and help implement opportunities for sustainable redevelopment.
The document presents standard operating procedures, guidelines for working with communities in creating sustainable plans, ideas for creating sustainability by hazard type, and 18 tools and programs for sustainability. Appendices contain a glossary of disaster terms, a list of acronyms used in the report (and there are lots of 'em!), a helpful catalog of web sites, a bibliography of recommended readings in sustainable development, a guide to federal technical assistance and funding, quotable materials on sustainability, and pertinent FEMA documents.
The first publication is on the FEMA web site: www.fema.gov/mit/planning_toc.htm. The larger volume is only available in printed form. Copies of both documents can be requested by phoning FEMA's Publication Warehouse: (800) 480-2520.
Return to the Index of the Natural Hazards Observer
Return to the Natural Hazards Center's Home Page