Taking the World by Storm

Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

The Governor has declared a State of Emergency and National Guard soldiers are, as I write, driving Humvees up and down the streets of New Haven, directing heavy equipment, creating staging areas, taking orders from a bunker beneath the Hall of Records. The enemy? Snow.

Winter storm “Nemo” prompted Connecticut’s first federal emergency declaration of 2013. Odds are it won’t be the last. There were eight emergency declarations made for Connecticut in all of the 1980s and 1990s. There were seven from 2000 through 2009. But there have been nine, already, in the past two years. Connecticut’s story is part of a national trend of more frequently invoking the Federal Disaster Relief Act to allow federal money to flow to communities in acute distress: it took about forty years from the passage of the act in 1953 to reach 1000 federally-declared disasters. That’s how many there have been in the twelve years.

Climate change, as Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy asserted, accounts for why we’ve been seeing—and will keep seeing—more extreme weather. But studying disaster and recovery policy as an ISPS Fellow, I’ve got my eye on another trend too: let’s call it, for now, governing in a state of emergency.

I was thinking about it on Tuesday night, when President Barack Obama said, in his State of the Union address: “The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.” He was referring specifically to the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling negotiations, both of which have transformed what might have been routine legislative logistics into contests of global economic brinksmanship. This most recent snow storm, though, and the familiar disaster declaration that followed, broadened the President’s point: increasingly, we wait for disasters to force our hands, formulating policies and spending vast amounts of money under duress. We govern in response to situations that, even if they could have been foreseen or forestalled, present themselves as emergencies.

Governing in a state of emergency doesn’t come with a built-in ideological position. In 2007, Naomi Klein argued in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism that proponents of unregulated markets and privatization use emergencies to shrink government, pushing through reforms that would have been impossible under normal circumstances. At the same time, we’ve seen how disasters can have the opposite effect, pushing people who once railed against robust government interventions, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, to embrace the merits of a stronger federal hand up. The case of Mississippi Congressman Steven Palazzo is particularly instructive: he’s become a political weathervane, lobbying for federal aid after Katrina, fighting it after Superstorm Sandy, and now, presumably, welcoming it again after the recent tornado in Hattiesburg.

The potential for political hypocrisy is not the worst casualty of this approach. More dangerous is that it tends to shift attention to symptoms (snow) rather than causes (climate change). And in an insidious way, crisis governance privileges those problems that present themselves as “natural” over those that are more obviously the product of human decisions. Along those lines, I’ll give the last word in tribute to the recently departed Ed Koch, who was for a time a congressman (and later the mayor) from a town not far south of New Haven, called New York City. In 1972, in the midst of a Congressional debate over what sort of aid to provide after a devastating storm, he asked “why it is we distinguish between natural disasters, and those made by man:”

“Would the ghettos of Harlem, South Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant become eligible for the assistance now intended for the victims of Hurricane Agnes, if through some magical way we were able, without loss of life or personal injury, to have the East River flood those areas? Do we need the intervention of God before we address ourselves to the problems that man has created?”

Area of study 
Federal Government