USA: Disaster politics can get in the way of disaster preparedness

Source(s): FiveThirtyEight

By Oliver Roeder and Andrea Jones-Rooy

Hurricane Harvey has been battering the Gulf Coast for days. At least 38 people have been confirmed dead, more than 30,000 people are expected to be placed in temporary shelters and thousands more are still missing or stranded. As many as 500,000 people are expected to apply for disaster-relief aid, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Of course, public safety, not politics, is the top concern right now, but because victims often rely on the government to help them prepare for and recover from a natural disaster, the two are often intertwined. Once people move past the photos of politicians looking compassionate or insensitive in the aftermath of a natural disaster, how do voters assess, blame or reward government leaders for their response? And most importantly, how do politicians react to these incentives to prepare for future storms?

The easy answer is that both local and national leaders are rewarded at the polls when the public thinks they did a good job of handling natural disasters and punished when people think they did a bad job. But the full story is a bit more complicated for three reasons. For a politician’s handling of a disaster to be reflected at the polls, voters first need to be aware of the natural disaster and their elected officials. Second, they need to link the political actors with the disaster — that is, they have to believe that politicians should take some share of the blame and not place it all on, say, a stroke of bad luck or a negligent corporation. Third, they need to make an assessment that the leader handled the situation either well or poorly.

Let’s suppose the first two conditions are met and voters are ready to blame or reward a leader for a natural disaster. How do they do so?



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