The number of federally declared disasters and emergencies has been on a steady upward march since the first one was made in May of 1953 after a tornado pummeled Georgia. Two new fully interactive charts are available below that illustrate the numbers.
We did something similar yesterday using data released recently by the Federal Emergency Management Agency detailing each of the more than 2,600 federally declared disasters and emergencies since the 1950s.
Today we’re looking at the data by year. Total declarations dipped somewhat to 114 in 2009, but that figure is still far higher than the 30 disasters and emergencies declared in 1989 when the numbers began to climb sharply. But do more declarations mean the nation is facing more actual disasters? No, says Matt Mayer, a former top homeland security official and now a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Official emergency and disaster declarations are critical for unleashing federal aid when state and local leaders determine they don’t have the resources necessary to help victims. Yet Mayer says that we’ve altered the definition of catastrophe. Each declaration costs money, and states would simply prefer to send the tab to Washington, according to Mayer.
“It’s free money. The federal government never says no,” Mayer told us in an interview. And President Barack Obama, he adds, could declare 128 disasters and emergencies by the end of the year at the current rate for 2010. Undoubtedly Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11 and even this winter’s East Coast snowstorms were history-making, and only those who have lived through the tragedy of a natural disaster know what it’s like.
Mayer nonetheless wrote in a mid-April paper for Heritage that federalizing so many disasters has led state and local governments to cut funding for their own emergency-management agencies. Local authorities are the “first responders” to major disasters and are critical for effective response and recovery. Plus, Mayer stated, deploying FEMA for every event large and small stretches the agency too thin leaving it unsuited for truly significant catastrophes.
Burdening FEMA with administering disaster relief after a freeze that destroys agriculture crops and does little else is highly inefficient. Similarly, droughts are tragic for those affected, but are generally limited to the agricultural community. Insurance markets and state and local governments can deal with these two types of disasters more efficiently than the federal government. Severe storms and tornadoes tend to be localized events that, while causing property damage and even sometimes costing lives, rarely outstrip the abilities of state and local governments to provide recovery and repair relief.
You can use the two interactive charts we created yesterday to look at the data by state and incident type (e.g. earthquake). California came out on top with nearly 200 declarations. Now we’ve added even more. Below you’ll find a user-driven map and chart that show the number of disaster and emergency declarations for each year since 1953. Use the menus on the right to view them differently. What types of disasters has your state faced over the last several decades? How have the numbers changed each year?
A couple of things to note. How FEMA categorizes different incidents can at times be inconsistent. The Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, for example, is listed as terrorist-caused, but the same disaster that day in New York City is described as “fires and explosions.” Three separate events are attributed to “human cause”: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing two years later and the 1980 boatlift crisis that occurred when thousands of Cubans fled to Florida during upheaval under Fidel Castro.
Also, we used a new program called Tableau Public to create the features below, and the folks at Tableau tell us some Safari users may be having trouble with their tools. The issue should be resolved by late April, they say, but using Firefox, Google Chrome or another browser may work better for now. You can also try setting your browser to accept third-party cookies.