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The Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and Hurricane Katrina are among the most memorable disasters of the past several decades, but they represent just a fraction of the events that have triggered presidential declarations of disaster since the first one was issued in 1953.
Richard Sylves, professor of political
science and a national expert on
presidential disaster declarations, has long been fascinated by the
intersection of political and governmental institutions with the phenomenon of “disaster.”
“I believe that how a national government addresses disaster says a great deal
about the politics, policy, governance and political culture of that country,” he says. “Presidential disaster declarations are ‘shock absorbers’ that help us cope with and recover from incidents as extraordinary as Katrina
and the 9/11 attacks and as comparatively mundane as flooding, storms and other
calamities that temporarily overwhelm localities throughout the nation.”
With the assistance of David Racca, policy scientist in UD’s Center for Applied Demography and Survey, Sylves created a website called “All About Presidential Disaster Declarations.” Funded by the non-profit Public Entity Risk Institute, the site enables users to build tables of information about presidentially declared disasters in every U.S. state and territory plus the District of Columbia. Users can also extract data down to the county level.
The site is used for a broad array of applications, from emergency management, grant applications, and risk studies to presidential studies and climate science, seismic, sociological, economic and geographic research.
“People in other nations also visit the site to compare U.S. disaster histories
with those of their own countries,” Sylves says, “and I often hear from journalists seeking information about recent and historic
While there are some dips and peaks in the data, the overall trend has been an increase in the number of presidential declarations of major disaster or emergency over time. In 1953, 13 were issued; by mid-year 2010, 60 had already been granted. The two highest years so far have been 1996 and 2008, with 75 each.
The reason for this increase is highly debated, according to Sylves. “Some scholars claim that most declarations are issued for political reasons,” he says, “though few suggest that turndowns of governor requests for them are politically
motivated. Declarations are almost always issued for ‘real’ events, but homeland security concerns now are part of the family of
declarations, and some are issued on the grounds of terrorism vulnerability for
events such as inaugurations.”
Only about one in four guber-natorial requests is turned down currently, and governors are highly motivated to seek presidential declarations, as the economic implications of most disasters and emergencies are daunting.
Federal assistance gained through declarations helps pay for the rebuilding of disaster-ravaged public infrastructure such as bridges, roads, airports, stadiums, government buildings and essential public service organizations.
“Individuals also benefit via a basket of key benefits,” Sylves says, “including emergency repairs to homes, housing aid and public sheltering,
unemployment relief, reconstruction aid and emergency medical costs. A core
purpose of federal disaster relief is to restore communities, to the extent
possible, to their pre-disaster conditions and to implement improvements likely
to mitigate or prevent similar disasters and damage in the future.”
Delaware has had only 13 disaster declarations since 1953, with none between 1965 and 1992. But Sylves warns against complacency.
“Delaware benefits from being geospatially small, making it a smaller target for
many disaster-inducing phenomena,” he says. “However, the state has many more vulnerabilities than people think.”
“Delaware has undergone a significant degree of deforestation owing largely to
development, and this allows more rainwater runoff and snow melt, which results
in more flooding. The state also bears the threat of hurricane damage and
suffers from the effects of sea-level rise as saltwater penetrates further
inland every year, jeopardizing wetland environmental resources and public
Sylves’ extensive knowledge of presidential declarations of disaster is documented in four books, including his most recent, Disaster Policy and Politics, published by Congressional Quarterly Press in 2008.
The book offers a contextual history of disaster policy and politics, discusses global issues and influences, explores the politics of planning and funding for the next disaster and provides a window into the future of emergency management.