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Winter 2001

What's driving the federal costs of flooding disasters?

by Zhenya Gallon

Mary Downton. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Politics, more than climate, influences the federal costs of flood disasters, according to a new study from NCAR and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado (CU). States are far more likely to receive federal funds through a presidential disaster declaration in years when the president is running for reelection. The study identified a 46% increase in disaster declarations during presidential reelection years, independent of the amount of precipitation or flood damage and whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat.

Mary Downton (NCAR) and Roger Pielke Jr. (CU) reported their findings in the November issue of the journal Natural Hazards Review.

"The declaration rates depend on the individual president—there's no general distinction along party lines," says Downton. Ronald Reagan stands out dramatically, she notes, with the fewest disaster declarations, once the damage and precipitation effects are factored out. There was more damage from flooding during the Clinton administration than during the first Bush administration, and the number of disaster declarations under Clinton was higher. After removing damage and precipitation effects, the researchers found that Clinton's declaration numbers were about the same as Bush's.

"We certainly see climate and damage varying from year to year," notes Pielke. "But if a goal of national policy is to reduce the federal costs of flooding disasters, then an effective way to do that is to focus on the politics and policies of disaster declarations."

The team notes that congressional and administrative guidelines for presidential declarations have not changed substantially since the authorizing legislation in 1950; their language allows presidents considerable discretion to respond in the wake of a disaster. "Given the lack of explicit guidelines, you have to expect that individual discretion is going to enter into presidential declarations, and that's what our data show," says Downton.

"Our findings are cause for optimism," says Pielke, "since policy is subject to human control. We do have some choices." He adds that understanding the relationship of politics and climate in disaster declarations is a policy area that has not received much scrutiny to date.

The authors evaluated consistency among NWS flood damage data and adjusted damage estimates for the years 1965–1997 to 1995 dollars. The historical record of precipitation was a second factor in their analysis. The team also considered a state's ability to deal with flood damage. They then compared the damage and precipitation data with the number of flood- related declarations approved by each presidential administration from Johnson through Clinton, based on data provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Additional data came from the Illinois State Water Survey. Funding was provided by NOAA.

On the Web:
Extreme Weather Sourcebook/Floods


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Thu Dec 20 16:42:17 MST 2001