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December 2001

Weather and politics: A recipe for disaster spending

When the White House sends disaster assistance to a state coping with flooding, it may be influenced by more than just the weather. A recent study by Mary Downton (ESIG) and CU professor Roger Pielke Jr. found that presidents are far more likely to issue disaster declarations in years when they are running for reelection.

Mary Downton. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Mary and Roger, who reported their findings in the November issue of the journal Natural Hazards Review, identified a 46% increase in disaster declarations during presidential reelection years—even after they accounted for variations in precipitation and flood damage.

"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 Mary.

The study also revealed that a president's political party affiliation plays little role in the mean number of disaster declarations.

For example, there was more damage from flooding during the Democratic Clinton administration than during the first Republican Bush administration, and the number of disaster declarations under Clinton was higher. But after adjusting for damage and precipitation effects, the researchers found that Clinton's declaration numbers were about the same as Bush's.

"The declaration rates depend on the individual president—there's no general distinction along party lines," Mary says.

The study, which looked at declarations for most fiscal years from 1965 to 1997, also found that Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Democrat, issued the fewest disaster declarations, once the damage and precipitation effects were factored out.

Overall, presidents issued a mean of 28.4 declarations in years when they were running for reelection, compared with 19.4 in other years.

"We certainly see climate and damage varying from year to year," Roger says. "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 Congress passed legislation in 1950 that granted presidents considerable discretion to respond to a natural disaster.

Although federal officials have attributed an increase in federal disaster declarations and related costs to more severe weather events, Mary and Roger suggest that other factors—including population growth, floodplain development, national politics, and presidential discretion—play a significant role.

"Our findings are cause for optimism," says Roger, "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.

To conduct the study, the authors reanalyzed flood damage data collected by the National Weather Service. They evaluated consistency among the 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 researchers 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, based on data provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Additional data were provided by the Illinois State Water Survey; funding was provided by NOAA.

• Zhenya Gallon


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UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes Monthly > December 2001 Search

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Last revised: Thu Dec 20 17:08:40 MST 2001