With an economy in shambles, two wars underway, and Osama bin Laden still on the loose, natural disasters may be low on the list of presidential transition briefings. But given that President Bush has declared a near-record number of disasters this year, perhaps they should rank higher.
A number of homeland security experts are calling on the incoming Barack Obama administration to declare fewer disasters next year.
Bush issued 74 major disaster declarations so far this year, including the most recent wildfires in California. With more than a month to go in the calendar year, that's already the second-highest number of disasters on record. Only 1996 saw more, with 75.
In 1958, by contrast, there were seven declared disasters.
Does the increase in disaster declarations prove global warming or reflect divine wrath? Hardly. "We're defining catastrophic down," says Matt Mayer, a former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security and author of Decentralizing Homeland Security: Protecting America From Outside the Beltway. "For every little tornado or flood, you are seeing a disaster declaration." Those events are certainly catastrophic to the local communities, he says, but don't rise to the truly catastrophic levels for which the disaster statutes were designed, such as the aftermath of truly historic storms like hurricanes Katrina and Ike.
"This isn't about managing disasters. It's about getting the federal government to pay for things," Mayer told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Moreover, it invites moral hazard.
For instance, states are freer to under-allocate money for disaster planning and recovery if they know the feds will pick up the tab—typically 75 percent in a disaster. Mayer says that allows states to continue policies, like unrestricted home-building near shorelines or in fire-prone regions, which can elevate ordinarily controllable weather events into disasters.
Witness the arid semi-desert around Los Angeles.
"The state is with you; we're going to help to get your homes back and your structures back, to get your lives back," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told homeowners as the last embers of the most recent wildfires were being snuffed out. There was little talk of limiting development in the fire-prone hills that surround the city.
Far from disasters, they are regularly occurring weather events that should be expected, Mayer says.
"Declaring so many disasters means that state and local governments degrade their own response capabilities, while FEMA can't prepare for the truly catastrophic events because of the increased operational tempo."