Politicizing disaster

Marvin Olasky
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Posted: Aug 03, 2006 12:01 AM

With lots of media specials on tap this month as the first anniversary of the Katrina disaster approaches, it's time for an inoculation against some of the propaganda that will arise.

First, we'll hear TV personalities yakking about the unprecedented nature of the New Orleans calamity. Hmm -- an earthquake nearly 4,000 years ago brought the Minoan civilization on Crete to an end. An earthquake and tidal wave destroyed the Greek city of Helike in 373 B.C. Medieval disasters destroyed cities such as Dunwich, England, and Rungholt, Germany. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake became a propagandistic windfall for Voltaire.

Second, we'll hear that the media response to Katrina was unprecedented. Not so: A decade ago the National Academy of Public Administration expressed concern about the "CNN Syndrome." Disaster and emergencies provide dramatic news. The media pressure reluctant local and state leaders to "ask for federal help," presidents to dispatch such help and representatives and senators to demand it on behalf of their constituents. Similar things happened two millennia ago: When Romans heard that Vesuvius had exploded, they clamored for relief to be sent, and Emperor Titus complied.

Third and most important, we'll be told that the federal government should protect everyone against disaster. That's the truly dangerous conclusion, because one of our problems now is that governmental policies normalize disaster. Just as insurance now covers regular dental checkups, disaster designation (which brings federal money) now covers unsurprising events like wintry blizzards.

Here are a few stats: The first president to take office with the power to issue a declaration of disaster, Dwight Eisenhower, issued 107 such declarations during his eight years in office, an average of 13 per year. That rose to an annual average of 18 during the Kennedy/Johnson years and more than doubled to an average of 37 during the Nixon/Ford administrations.

The numbers then stayed relatively steady until 1993, but Bill Clinton more than doubled the total to 88. And George W. Bush, even more promiscuous in his declarations, averaged 139 annually during his first five years in office, or one catastrophe every 2.6 days.

Is the half-century rise because we have more problems? Hmm -- just coincidentally, of course, disaster declarations peak in presidential election years. Two researchers, Mary W. Downton of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Roger A. Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, Boulder, took into account the amount of precipitation each year as they examined flood-related disasters from 1965 to 1997. They found that the average number of flood-related disasters declared by presidents in election years was 46 percent higher than it should have been.

Two other researchers, Thomas A. Garrett and Russell S. Sobel, concluded that Congressional as well as presidential politics have an effect on disaster declarations. Controlling statistically for the damage caused by storms, they found a correlation between disaster-relief dollars and the number of representatives a state has on the major FEMA oversight committees in the House of Representatives. Overall, one-third of FEMA payments seemed directly attributable to representation on Congressional oversight committees, regardless of a disaster's severity.

What happens when we look to the feds rather than emphasizing family, community, local and state help? Even when payments aren't fraudulent, we have not only budget-busting but amplification of the already-existing tendency of Americans to become subjects rather than citizens, dependently waiting for federal money rather than independently acting -- and that leads to an atrophy of community muscles. People ask what this country can do for them, instead of what they can do for themselves and for their neighbors.

There is a better way: Church, community, local and state groups should take the lead in disaster relief -- and many did so following Katrina. The feds (apart from military rescue operations) should only be involved as a very last resort. But you won't hear that on the media specials.