By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
April 19, 2006
President Bush is the most munificent chief executive in U.S. history, averaging 53 disaster declarations a year. That's up from Bill Clinton's average of 47 declarations a year, which was a bump over George H.W. Bush's average of 39 a year, which was an increase from Ronald Reagan's 23 declarations a year.
Each of these four presidents issued the largest number of disaster declarations of their administrations in the year they sought re-election. The odds of that are 1 in 1,280 if political considerations were not involved, according to statisticians.
The dollar amounts at stake are enormous in a process that disaster experts complain has become highly politicized. Since 1989, the federal government has distributed $65.5 billion in public and private assistance as a result of these declarations, more than half of which was paid just in the last five years.
"It's the new pork," said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards Research Laboratory at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. "Disaster declarations are a way you can pump federally mandated monies into communities without going through Congress."
The nation's two biggest disaster-declaration years were 1996, when Clinton issued a record 75 orders, and 2004, when Bush issued 68. Both men were re-elected in those years.
Bush and Clinton ordered federal assistance for dozens of events like "severe storms," "freezing rain" and "fishing losses" - conditions that never merited disaster declarations under earlier administrations, according to government records.
"The problem with all of this is there isn't enough emphasis being placed on the prevention of natural disasters," said Richard Sylves, a University of Delaware political scientist who has studied the disaster-declaration process.
"Many communities have created conditions that increase their vulnerability, things like intentionally building in a floodplain or cutting down forests that once protected against flash flooding."
The rate at which presidents have been turning down requests for disaster aid have declined in recent administrations, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency obtained by Sylves.
The seven presidential administrations from Dwight Eisenhower through Reagan refused an average of 35 percent of all disaster-declaration requests they received. But the refusal rate dropped to 21 percent for both George H.W. Bush and Clinton, and now stands at just 16 percent for the current president.
State disaster managers said they are aware that the rules have been liberalized for getting federal assistance.
"There is always pressures to say 'yes.' But that's because the need is so legitimate," said Kris Eide, Minnesota's emergency management director. "City and county government were not quite as strapped for cash in the past as they are today. A really bad storm can push them over the edge."
Minnesota was one of the first states to win a declaration for "freezing rain" - an order Clinton issued in 1996. The last five disaster declarations that the current President Bush has given West Virginia were under the category of "severe storms, flooding and landslides" - a category rarely or never used in previous administrations.
"Some of these declarations are marginal. They could go either way," agreed Jimmy Gianato, West Virginia's director of emergency management. "It depends upon who is reviewing the request, the amount of damage that was inflicted, how much of it was structural damage, and whether that has been a repetitive pattern to the damage."
But Gianato said he doubts that the current level of federal generosity will continue.
"I think we will see the rules get tightened in the coming years," he said. "It's common sense. We are spending a lot of money on wars overseas. Federal spending will have to be tightened."
But slowing Washington's largesse may not be easy. State governors and their disaster-management staffs have become highly skilled at applying for declarations.
"State governors have learned there is no downside to asking," Sylves said. "Having the president turn down your request isn't going to cost you any votes. But failing to ask for assistance can cost votes and bad publicity."
He said states are using satellite imaging and computer disaster models to craft declaration requests within days of a bad storm. "All of this plus news-media saturation of disaster coverage has created tremendous pressure on the White House to approve a declaration," Sylves said.
Officials at FEMA, which receives and reviews disaster-declaration requests before passing them on to the White House, said they have not changed their own criteria for judging the merits of a request.
"The decision to declare a disaster rests solely with the president. The reasons he chooses are his and his alone," said FEMA spokesman James McIntyre.
He said his agency "has not liberalized the rate at which FEMA recommends approval of declarations to the president." McIntyre said his agency will not comment on the growing number of declarations.
Susan Cutter, at the University of South Carolina, said federal authorities have remained vague as to how the White House decides whether to declare a disaster.
"There is no consistent threshold or metric in use that I am aware of," she said. "I'm not sure there are any rules at all because this is, after all, a presidential decision."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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