Whether we want to believe it or not, political considerations are a significant factor in the preparation for, response to, recovery from and mitigation of disaster events. Think back to disasters you have personally been involved in or you’ve seen in other parts of the country. Has there ever been one where there was no political involvement? Is it likely that there every will be one? I ‘m quite sure the answer to both questions is “no”. If we really analyze the events and issues surrounding disasters, we readily see that politics is an integral element of the disaster and that element has to be dealt with just like any other disaster impact.
If we are to adequately discuss this principle, it is necessary to look into why disasters are naturally so fraught with political considerations and to consider the factors which determine how political a disaster might become.
There are at least three basic reasons why disasters are political in nature. First and most important, disasters affect people. Basic Emergency Management doctrine tells us that the determination of what constitutes a disaster is the impact it has on people. The impact of a disaster is measured with regard to how people are affected. In situations where there is no impact, there is no disaster regardless of the actual occurrence of a hazardous event
When we do hazard analyses, we look at two elements, probability and vulnerability. Vulnerability is almost always expressed in terms of the potential impact on people. A disaster then, by definition, involves people, and any event which significantly affects the lives and property of people is political.
Secondly, disaster are political because the involve public policy. How well or how poorly we mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters is directly related to how well emergency management/disaster policy is created, maintained and implemented. By definition, politics is the process of establishing and carrying out public policy. Failures in policy or its implementation is the stuff around which political debates revolve and of which political campaigns are made. A disaster event brings this policy debate squarely into the political arena.
Third, and related to the first two reasons, is the fact that disasters invariably invite public (read media) interest. In our modern culture of all-pervasive mass communications, disasters are dramatic, newsworthy events which compel intense public interest. Politicians appropriately have to respond to that kind of interest and scrutiny.
There are a number of very important factors which can determine how “political” a particular disaster situation can become. First there is the nature of the disaster itself. Generally speaking a violent event tends to be more political that slow growing events which do not initially attract as much attention. If the cause of an event is such as to involve potential blame, the politicization of the event is significantly increased. We don’t tend to blame nature (or God) for natural events. We do, however, increase the media (and therefore the political) “feeding frenzy” when there is potentially a human cause for the disaster. The scope of the disaster affects the political nature of it. Obviously, an event which involves the state has more potential for political implications.
A second factor is the degree to which public policies become a part of the disaster event. This can be affected by such things as the level of response involved and the requirement to deal with difficult or uncharacteristic issues which adversely affect or irritate the public, e.g. evacuations. Events or potential events which could have been prevented or lessened by mitigation actions (e.g. flooding, earthquakes, etc.) will necessarily bring policy questions into the disaster event.
A third factor involves the quality of decisions and response actions. Such considerations as: Were response efforts handled adequately or in a timely fashion? Were mistakes made or was the response slow and poorly coordinated? What is the level of perceived public dissatisfaction? Such elements combined with public (or media) questions and controversy will increase the political aspect of the event significantly.
Fourth, the nature of the political environment in the community will have an impact on the disaster situation. Such things as whether the political players are on the same “team”, whether previous partisan divisions existed or whether disaster policy disagreements have been a factor in the past all affect, to one degree or another the disaster’s political climate. The political players adversaries generally and disinclined to cooperate or do they share a common political agenda. There was significant conflict regarding response and recovery issues attributable to this political reality.