What drives the costs of flood disasters?

Hint: it's not the weather or climate

provided by National Center for Atmospheric Research

olitics, more than climate, influences the federal costs of flood disasters, according to a new study. States are far more likely to receive federal funds through a presidential disaster declaration in years when the president is running for reelection, say researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Cooperative Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

    The team 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 Republican or Democrat. NCAR associate scientist Mary Downton and University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr. report 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 reanalyzed flood damage data collected by the National Weather Service (an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). They evaluated consistency among the data and adjusted damage estimates for the years 1965-1997 in 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 from Johnson through Clinton, 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. NCAR's primary sponsor is the National Science Foundation.