How would the candidates deal with the natural disasters that lurk ahead?

October 17, 2016

During this election season, we’ve already seen several natural and environmental hazards wreak havoc. The Louisiana floods this past August and the current wake from Hurricane Matthew are the most recent examples of the 39 major disaster declarations in 2016—so far. Government aid has come to Louisiana while damage is still being assessed along the southeastern seaboard.

We’ve also seen the two major presidential candidates talk about these recent disasters, visit them in some cases, and invariably offer their “thoughts and prayers.” Neither candidate has an explicit policy platform on disaster management. To be fair, few presidential candidates in recent history have brought up disaster planning and assistance in their stump speeches.

What should happen during and after disasters?

A new president needs to know two fundamental things about disaster management: how it works administratively between the various levels of government and how much it costs the federal government.

Neither candidate has said much about the latter or about the ongoing trend of increasing federal resources for disaster relief and recovery.

With regard to intergovernmental management, though, some past comments give insight. After Katrina, for example, then-Senator Clinton argued for a reorganization of the Department of Homeland Security so that FEMA could better equip itself to its former capacity under former President Clinton’s FEMA Chief James Lee Witt—an organization described by most disaster experts as competent and efficient in the face of disasters like Hurricane Andrew.

After 9/11, Clinton was also involved in congressional disaster recovery appropriations.

After Hurricane Sandy, private citizen Trump accused the Obama administration of excessive, politically motivated relief handouts. 

What should happen before disasters?

There is even less in either candidate’s past statements to suggest that they have considered how best to prepare for disasters. Disaster preparedness and mitigation—improving infrastructure, homes, and communities before disasters—has received bipartisan support. A promising policy improvement would be to allocate relatively more resources to mitigation than recovery compared with current policy.

Trump noted recently that revisiting infrastructure due to phenomena like rising sea levels is “probably not the worst thing [he’s] ever heard.” Clinton said recently that disasters pose a threat to local infrastructure and national security. Going further back to the Democratic primary, Clinton also referenced “resilience and mitigation” as a growing need that required bipartisan action.

What should our next president focus on?

We’ve talked before the increasing quantity of disasters and the magnitude of disaster damages. Though there are many natural hazards like earthquakes that are unrelated to climate change’s effects, the severity and frequency of others—tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and severe storms and floods—are likely to continue increasing.

Having some basic commitment to increasing mitigation in proportion with recovery resources is a start for either candidate. Getting into a few weeds about infrastructure spending is even better. But working out the details of the property insurance—especially National Flood Insurance Program—and disaster planning and awareness at the local levels is going to get us further down the path.

Clinton has stated a link between climate change and disasters, while Trump has (arguably) dismissed climate change, its effects on disaster rates, and the impacts of disasters on communities. If scientific evidence provides any indication of what is to come, whoever is elected will have to reckon with these crises—and how to pay for them.

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