This paper was published in June 2012, well prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. This summary quote is lengthy, very academic, and insightful. Mentally extending the findings stated below to our current global health disaster and future global warming disasters is useful as it implies realtime and future reaction at many societal levels.
Art Hunter, CACOR Board of Directors, 2020-06-26
The Politics of Natural Disasters
Daniel P Aldrich, Purdue University
People around the world are far more likely to encounter death or harm because of mudslides, collapsed buildings, and flooding than front-page issues such as terrorism, riots, or insurgency. In response to the range of natural hazards, researchers of the politics of disasters have studied how individuals, communities, and states prepare for, respond to, and recover from catastrophes and crises. While some have defined disasters as events that cause 100 human deaths or injuries or $1 million in damage, they are more broadly understood as calamities that interrupt the routines of normal life and politics and cause widespread health and livelihood consequences. This working definition separates fender benders from city-wide flooding, but moving to further distinguish between “natural” and “man-made” disasters becomes quite difficult as political and social choices magnify the effect of these events, especially in the contexts of increasing urbanization and anthropogenic climate change (see the Categorizing Disasters section within this article for more on this theme.
Due to the broad effects of floods, tsunami, hurricanes, famines, earthquakes, and fires, scholars from all disciplines have written a tremendous amount on the issue. Writings on disaster and recovery date back to the earliest recorded history, including the Biblical story of a great deluge and the Sumerian narrative of Gilgamesh, and continue through the enlightenment with Voltaire’s writings on the November 1755 Portugal earthquake and tsunami which destroyed much of Lisbon. Political scientists, sociologists, geographers, anthropologists, economists, and historians have studied disaster recovery, best practices in disaster response, the role of the government in rebuilding, and so forth. This annotated bibliography illuminates representative examples of the interdisciplinary work in this vast academic subfield. Most of the work that I have selected for inclusion comes from the end of the 20th century and early 21st century, but builds on the work of scholars such as Samuel Prince, who wrote about the 1917 Halifax harbor explosion three years later, and on mid-1950s and 1960s work sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences.
As residents and companies seek to rebuild damaged homes, businesses, and lives, scholars have debated whether or not the process of recovery can be divided into easily identified periods or phases (Rubin 2009). Some scholars envisioned the process of post-disaster recovery as one which can be formally divided into clearly recognizable steps, as in Haas et al.’s 1977 work
that argued for a logarithmic progression of response, restoration, reconstruction, and commemorative reconstruction (with each stage taking 10 times longer than the previous one). Other scholars have strongly disagreed, such as Quarantelli’s 1982 work that underscored the non-linear progress in housing post-disaster, and Berke and Beatley 1997 and Rubin 2009 which found little support for such phases across crises. Berke et al. 1993 similarly argued that there are no distinct phases in the recovery process, as did Bates and Peacock 1989, which underscored the social context as a key factor in the process of recovery; Neal 1997 pushed for are casting of the recovery cycle approach using multidimensional, mutually inclusive phases which take the social context of recovery seriously. The field has reached some consensus that different social and demographic groups go through the recovery process at different speeds and that predicting recovery speeds may be impossible.
NATURAL MAN-MADE AND Natural / Technological DISASTERS
While casual observers may argue that disasters such as floods and hurricanes are “natural” disasters or “acts of God,” that is, events over which decision makers have no control, scholars have come to understand that the political and social environments create and magnify the impact of those events. Oliver-Smith and Hoffman’s 1999 edited volume set the stage for this approach and argued that one must recognize the role of environment, society, and technology in calamities. Vaughn 1999 demonstrated that government agencies and private firms alike create cultures which make catastrophic outcomes likely, while Steinberg 2000 pointed to governmental policies under successive US presidential administrations as heavily responsible for outcomes which disproportionately impact minorities and the poor. Albala-Bertrand 2000 sought to disentangle complex emergencies and technological crises from natural disasters because of the strong role of societal and institutional weakness in the former. Picou 2009 envisioned recent crises, such as Hurricane Katrina, as combined natural-technological (natech) events in which natural processes such as hurricanes cause the release of hazardous, man-made materials(including oil and other toxins) into the environment. Perry and Quarantelli 2005 distinguished between disasters and catastrophes, arguing that the latter require a different set of planning strategies than the former.
MITIGATION PREPARATION AND INSURANCE
Government authorities and disaster planners regularly hope to reduce the effect of future disasters through mitigation strategies, individual household and business disaster preparation schemes, and federally funded insurance programs (Smith 2011). Despite these good intentions, researchers have illuminated a number of factors that prevent effective long-term planning in the general population and have resulted in large number of un- or under-insured victims of disaster. Kunreuther and Useem’s 2010 edited volume, for example, described behavioral and cognitive biases that preclude people from undertaking calculated, long-term strategies, pointing out that decision making is affected by our bounded rationality, status quo bias, and the fact that many of us prioritize immediate gratification and understate risks that we voluntary assume. Kaplow 1991 argued that government insurance policies themselves distort insurance-purchasing incentives and individual behavior by allowing individuals to avoid bearing the full cost of their actions. In response, Lewis and Murdock 1996 suggested the auctioning of excess-of-loss contracts to better spread out disaster risk in the insurance market and Auersward et al. 2006 advocated public-private partnerships and new insurance programs to reduce overall vulnerability to hazards. Beyond the narrow field of mitigation through insurance, Perrow 2007 argued that planners should work to reduce unnecessary and preventable hazards, such as the concentration of population in under-sea-level cities, the tremendous number of computers controlled by Microsoft’s complex and tightly coupled operating systems, and the bottlenecks of the deregulated electric power industry. In contrast to researchers who find hope in top-down government planning for catastrophe, Clarke 1999 deeply criticized disaster response plans which attempt to change unknowable risk to acceptable risk and convince the public that that experts are in charge as “fantasy documents”.
The effects of disaster do not impact all members of society equally. Instead, the poor, minority groups, the infirm, and the elderly are most vulnerable to harm and death from shocks like flooding, tornadoes, and other disasters. Cutter et al. 2003 and Cutter and Emrich 2006 created a social vulnerability index with socioeconomic, demographic, and GIS data to demonstrate that certain locations across the US remain most vulnerable to future disasters; as a result, they argue, standard, uniform approaches to disasters across geography will not be effective. Tierney 2006 emphasized underlying patterns of social inequality which planners and disaster managers must take into account when thinking through disaster response. Using census tract data from three hurricanes in four regions the 1990s, Pais and Elliott 2008 demonstrated divergent post-disaster development patterns, with black, Latino, and elderly populations actually increasing but often along pre-existing geographic lines, which reinforced economic inequalities. Finch, Emrich, and Cutter 2010 investigated how less damaged and vulnerable areas recovered more quickly post-Katrina with highly and moderately vulnerable areas lagging behind. Caste systems along with institutionalized racial and ethnic discrimination may create additional vulnerability in peripheral groups, as Louis 2005 discovered when it found that thousands of victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami across India were excluded from relief provision because of their caste and/or gender. Subervi 2010 found that, while community safety is contingent on being well-informed, government agencies and institutions serving Spanish-speaking areas of Texas lacked capacity to provide necessary information to their constituent population. The Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement 2008 has developed guidelines for international assistance to try to minimize human rights violations in the aftermath of disasters.
While decision makers have worked hard to provide early warning and evacuation systems, especially to coastal and vulnerable communities, and it is clear that evacuation serves as the most effective way to prevent loss of life and injury from predictable disasters, reactions to evacuation information vary widely by perceived risk, past experience, income, race, and gender. Baker’s 1979 meta-analysis of past studies criticized them for inappropriate measurement of evacuation outcomes and poor indicators; the follow-up study Baker 1991 argued that risk level from the storm, public authorities’ actions, housing, perception of risk, and disaster-specific threats accounted for most of the variation in behavior. Aguirre 1991 demonstrated that respondents’ evacuation decisions were not correlated with demographic, social network, or socioeconomic status, and instead were strongly a function of their belief in the viability of their housing under hurricane conditions. In the study of the evacuation responses of residents of Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach following the hurricane season, Dow and Cutter 1998 found that perceived lack of reliability from gubernatorial warnings caused people to rely on alternative sources (such as the Weather Channel) and self-assessments of risk. Whitehead et al. 2000 used a survey of 900 to show that mandatory evacuation orders (in contrast with voluntary ones) from authorities were most likely to trigger evacuation, as were risk factors such as occupancy in trailer homes. Bateman and Edwards 2002 used a survey of 1000 households to explain why women are more likely than men to evacuate, which they explained primarily as a function of women’s care-giving roles and exposure to risk. Hasan et al 2011found a number of factors to be critical in predicting evacuation behavior, including source of the news about the impending disaster, demographic information (such as having children under 18, income, and education), and previous disaster experience
The “first responders” to disaster may not necessarily be professional firefighters, police officers, and military personnel who have been trained for such events; instead, neighbors and local residents often serve as the first wave of help for victims, as seen in the response to the 1985 Mexican earthquake (Poniatowska 1995). Early on, Parr 1970 recognized how new organizations – known in the disaster literature as “emergent groups” – rose up to handle responsibilities and problems not covered by existing associations after disaster. Deepening this line of inquiry, Stallings and Quarantelli 1985 reviewed how these new, non-institutionalized, informal groups pursued collective goals in a variety of policy arenas; Hollingshead et al 2007 suggested ways of coordinating these groups after disaster using cognitive models of knowledge sharing. Dow 1999 showed how established social relationships in a Malaysian fishing community helped residents withstand the impact of a large scale oil spill which deeply impacted their ocean-based livelihoods.
DISASTER MYTHS AND BEHAVIOR
After Hurricane Katrina, the media reported regularly on horrific environmental conditions in the ad hoc shelters set up by the city government and on the supposed inhumanity of survivors in their relations with each other. Fischer 1988, Tierney et al 2006, and Quarantelli 2007 have pushed to dispel claims about social disorder, rape, and looting, conditions that they label “disaster myths”. Further, with longitudinal data on more than 100 respondents in Potsdam, NY after an ice storm in 1998, Sweet 1988 demonstrated that after a major disaster, rather than decreasing, social cohesion among residents actually increased (eventually returning to pre-disaster levels a year or more after the event). Similarly, Solnit’s 2009 popular press book underscored that the elite, not common citizens, tend to panic after disaster, while residents themselves often bond together in the face of crisis (thus building a “paradise” in hell). Not all scholars agree; Frailing 2007 argued that looting following catastrophe is in fact not a myth, and that planners and law enforcement personnel should instead create disaster policies which anticipate it.
Post disaster, national governments and NGOs rush in to assist victims with search and rescue, food, water, and medical supplies, temporary shelter, and even law enforcement guidance in stabilizing damaged areas. Many observers have criticized the often poorly thought- out provision of massive amounts of aid; in India, for example, local community activists called the influx of aid a “second tsunami”.
Similarly, Hyndman 2011 labeled the post-2004 Indian Ocean tsunami a “dual disaster” due to the humanitarian problems the response induced in Southeast Asia, and Aldrich 2010 showed how aid was not apportioned solely according to need. Similarly, there has been strong criticism about the role that nongovernmental organizations can play in the mitigation and recovery processes. Chandra and Acosta’s 2009 paper used interviews with NGO leaders after Hurricane Katrina to illuminate problems faced by civil society organizations as they responded to disasters, including a lack of clarity on which models of recovery should undergird recovery efforts and a lack of consensus on operationalzing roles and responsibilities. Allen 2006 used data from the work of the Philippine National Red Cross to warn that, although many hope to use community based disaster preparedness as a way of mitigating calamity, and hence reducing the scope of necessary interventions, this may place untenable burdens on the local communities. Benson et al. 2001 posited that while NGOs may be well placed to assist in post-disaster recovery, barriers to participation, including a lack of institutional memory among the NGOs along with a lack of guidance for their leadership, have often stymied effective action.
GOVERNANCE DURING AND AFTER
As our cultural understanding of disasters places sees them as unguided and unintended, politicians and the public must struggle to establish broad agreement over the best course for public policy, wrangling over causal stories and narratives connected to the event (Stone 1989). Local governments in the United States and elsewhere lack the financial and administrative resources to handle large scale disasters, and must rely on assistance from the federal government. As Rubin and Barbee 1985 argue, the inter-governmental relationship is often strained and can be categorized into top-down, confusion, and bottom-up models, with the best results coming from locality-driven strategies (Schneider 1990). Given that responses to disasters are truly political events, Sobel and Leeson 2006 point out the decision makers can fumble because of short-sightedness, glory seeking, and the structures inherent in federalism. Burby 2006 suggested that with sufficient planning, local government and federal governments can overcome these kinds of obstacles through adjustments to existing programs such as the National Flood Insurance Program. Boin et al.’s 2008 edited volume showed why some national governments gained credibility and popular support following crises whereas others found themselves out of office at the next election; outcomes for politicians include elite reinvigoration, elite escape, and elite damage. Birkland 2007 argued that that citizens expect government officials to learn from past events, and that, as focusing events, disasters may serve as the catalysts for either policy change or agenda change depending on contextual factors.
SOCIAL CAPITAL IN DISASTER RECOVERY
Over the past decade, scholars have incorporated recognition of the role of social networks and social capital in their study of disaster mitigation, search and rescue, and recovery. Moving away from models focused on characteristics external to the community – such as governance, damage from the disaster, and aid from the state or nongovernmental organizations – these experts have illuminated how the ties that bind residents to each other provide resilience to crises through information, the ability to overcome barriers to collective action, and mutual aid. In their study of the 1997 Red River Flood in Manitoba, Canada, Buckland and Rahman 1999 found that among the First Nation, Mennonite, and Francophone communities, localities with higher levels of social capital were better prepared for and more efficiently responded to the flood. Beggs et al. 1996 showed that, after Hurricane Andrew, individuals embedded in dense networks of relationships had a better chance of receiving informal support than those with fewer ties. Klinenberg 2002 documented the ways in which social networks in communities across Chicago made the difference in survival and mortality rates during a heat wave there. Nakagawa and Shaw 2004 showed Indian and Japanese communities with higher levels of social capital had higher levels of satisfaction and faster recovery rates, while Adger et al. 2005 argued for the critical nature of local social networks in reinforcing existing institutions and building mitigation. Yasui 2007 used in-depth process tracing of two similar neighborhoods in Kobe to show how Mano – which had deeper reservoirs of social capital – recovered more effectively than nearby Mikura after the earthquake, and Tatsuki 2007 used large-scale, longitudinal surveys of survivors of the same earthquake to demonstrate how social ties transformed survivors’ narratives about recovery. Envisioning post-disaster environments as collective action problems, Chamlee-Wright 2010 posited that communities access social institutions and socially embedded networks that provide norms, tools, and networks to survivors in the recovery process. In their cautionary tale about social capital’s role in recovery, Elliott et al. 2010 illuminated how poorer residents in post-Katrina New Orleans neighborhoods were less able to tap into translocal social resources through their networks during displacement.
SHORT TO MEDIUM TERM POLITICAL OUTCOMES
A number of political scientists have used disasters as tragic “natural experiments” to illuminate how voters punish or reward incumbent governments for events which take place during their time in office. Many studies have also demonstrated why governments rarely invest ex-ante in pre-disaster mitigation and instead spend heavily on the less efficient post-disaster restoration process. Healy and Malhotra 2009 argued that short-sighted voters are willing to reward the incumbent presidential party for post-disaster relief spending but not for mitigation and preparedness work done before such events; using data on tornadoes and election outcomes they have also found evidence that voters punish incumbents for economic damage done by disasters (but not fatalities) and also reward governments when they make disaster declarations (see Healy and Malhotra 2010). Where Roberts 2006 laid out FEMA’s history, Chen 2011 argued that FEMA disaster aid mobilized turnout for the incumbent party while demobilizing turnout for the opposition party in elections following disaster. Bechtel and Hainmueller 2011 argued that concentrated relief efforts after the 2002 Elbe flooding in Germany resulted in medium-term, small-scale electoral support for the incumbent party, while Cole et al. 2012 found that voter gratitude for government spending was short-lived and as a result Indian governments provided most relief during election years. Finally, Sinclair et al. 2011 use long-term voting records and GIS-encoded flood data after Hurricane Katrina to show the residents with very high levels of water damage were more likely to turn out to vote than individuals experiencing less flooding.
LONG TERM POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC IMPACT
Well-publicized disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and the compounded 2011 Tohoku disaster in Japan captured the front pages for weeks around the world. Subject matter experts have disagreed on whether or not the tremendous devastation wrought by these mega catastrophes has long term economic and political impacts. Eckstein 1988 saw the response from local Mexicans after the 1985 as creative and vibrant but constrained by political institutions while Tavera-Fenollosa 1999 saw challenges to authoritarian rule and new pressures for decentralization emerging from the disaster. Albala-Bertrand 1993 argued that there are few, if any, negative impacts from disasters on gross domestic product (GDP), and posited that overall GDP growth actually improved after the events(perhaps because of the destruction of the stock of older capital, the inflow of aid to the affected areas, and new construction). Horwich 2000 argued that economic recovery following the tremendous 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan was quite rapid (with strong recovery within a year and a half) and was slowed only due to policy debates about land use. Strobl 2008 argued that between 1970 and 2005 there was no measurable negative national quarterly economic growth due to hurricanes. Chang 2000 and Chang 2010, in contrast, analyzed how the 1995 Kobe earthquake not only disrupted the regional economy and halted production at factories but also altered institutions and downgraded the role of foreign cargo shipment services.
After disaster, decision makers and residents alike agree that finding shelter for internally displaced people (IDPs) and workers alike is a critical mission, and research has found that delaying the process of providing housing delays other aspects of recovery, including business and public service provision (Peacock et al. 2006). Due to stigma attached to temporary shelters such as FEMA trailers, actually sitting and constructing this critical resource has proven a challenge time and time again. Aldrich and Crook 2008, for example, found that, controlling for race, income, education, housing prices, and damage from Hurricane Katrina, communities with greater mobilization potential in New Orleans actually kept out FEMA housing, while Davis and Bali 2008 and Craemer 2010 found that racial composition of neighborhoods in New Orleans had a substantial effect on siting decisions for temporary housing.
Rather than focusing solely on the role of hazard mitigation infrastructure (such as the construction of additional sea walls, levees, and so on) or on the role of insurance programs and the provision of government aid, new work on disasters has focused on improving the social adaptive capacity of societies and communities to recover from disturbances in order to keep functioning after disaster (UNISDR 2005). Berke and Campanella 2006 argued that resilience is more likely when local communities have recovery plans in place, take compact urban forms seriously as a vision for their localities, and undertake bottom-up involvement, which includes disadvantaged groups. McCreight 2010 similarly underscored the need for the recovery framework to integrate local leadership, norms, and bottom-up plans in order for it to successfully generate resilience. Comfort et al.’s 2010 edited volume focused on coordinating processes across federal, local, and nonprofit organizations and integrating a variety of technologies that will function during hazards to inform decision makers and improve outcomes. Liu et al. 2011 uses the well-publicized Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to show how achieving broad-based resilience requires the involvement of criminal justice, health care, land planning, and neighborhood organizations. Aldrich 2012 used quantitative and qualitative data at the neighborhood level from the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to show how areas with higher levels of civic engagement and deeper reservoirs of social capital demonstrated more resilience after mega catastrophe.