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Make It Rain: How Politics Impacts Disaster Relief

When a local disaster strikes – a severe snowstorm, a flood, even an uptick in the area’s wolf population – Americans expect that federal emergency funds will help them recover. But the reality of that expectation depends largely on where you live and which way the political winds are blowing.

The recent controversy over the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its handling of hurricane-related disaster relief funds to Puerto Rico raises anew the question of how deeply politics impacts the allocation of this money. Alejandro De La Campa, FEMA’s director in Puerto Rico, told NPR that the agency was evaluating whether it could justify ending food and water distribution on the island, even though about 35 percent of its population still has no power and 20 percent does not have water.

While large disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy are usually too prominent for politicians to ignore, the dilemma of electorally negligible Puerto Rico illustrates a startling truth about American politics: when it comes to federal aid, how much you get often depends on how your district votes.

In my research, I’ve found that the distribution of disaster aid is politicized both by Democrats and Republicans. And despite the perception of increased partisanship in recent years, disaster aid has been a political football since at least 1972.

In politically competitive states during election years, presidents seem especially sensitive and responsive with disaster aid. My analysis looks at how this aid is funneled county by county, rather than state by state, which shows more clearly how favors are granted at the local level. A governor might ask for aid to help a particular county that would help with their re-election efforts. Whether the governor and president are from the same party also impacts whether a county gets requested aid.

So what does this mean for the average citizen? Simply put, while the Declaration of Independence tells us that all men are created equal, to paraphrase George Orwell, some are more equal than others. While we all know about the partisan influence on pork-barrel projects like roads and bridges, it is startling to think that politics also apply to emergency aid.

Rhetoric notwithstanding, the impact of politics on disaster relief is not news to anyone in Congress. In many ways, it’s an accepted part of how policymakers do business. What might be surprising to some is the way this system impacts the behavior of state officials.

For example, a governor in a state that sits in a flood plain doesn’t have a strong incentive to spend money on projects like dams or levees, especially if there hasn’t been a recent bad storm to jog the public’s memory. These projects are expensive, and spending money on them – especially at election time – diverts funds away from initiatives that are more visible and popular with voters. Then, if disaster strikes, the governor can pass the blame on to the federal government.

In Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, an outspoken opponent of President Trump, has seen her political star rise as she called for a better federal response to the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Maria. Trump has accused her of poor leadership and complained that Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was shoddy before the hurricane hit. In polling for TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” award, Cruz was outpacing Trump in late November, although neither won.

Meanwhile, the island – which, as a U.S. territory, carries no electoral votes in the presidential election, although its residents are U.S. citizens – remains in critical need of assistance. A FEMA one-woman contractor who was paid $156 million to provide 30 million meals to Puerto Rico instead sent 50,000. To date, the official death toll stands at 64, but The New York Times reports that the actual number may be 1,052.

No American citizen, regardless of political affiliation, should ever expect second-class treatment, particularly with something as vital as disaster relief. We can, and should, demand better.

-John Gasper, associate teaching professor of economics at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University