FROM ISSUE NUMBER 5 ~ FALL 2010 GO TO TABLE OF CONTENTS
Our Responder in Chief
Around 9:45 p.m. on April 20, 2010, a large explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig as it drilled below the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The explosion killed 11 workers, inflicted enormous damage on the rig, and eventually caused the drilling platform to sink. It also left the well open, causing oil to gush into the sea in what became by far the largest offshore oil spill in American history. Naturally, the spill riveted the nation's attention to the vulnerable ecosystem of the gulf and the fishing and tourism industries that depend on it, to the safety concerns surrounding deep-sea drilling, and to the practices of BP, the energy company that operated the rig.
But then a strange thing happened. Within a few days, as the magnitude of the disaster became more clear, the nation's focus shifted from the gusher in the gulf and became fixed upon the White House. The left and right alike pilloried President Obama for not doing enough: Liberals complained that he had failed to adequately champion green energy and regulation of the oil industry, while conservatives questioned his leadership. Slate's Daniel Gross argued that Obama's flailing rhetoric stirred nostalgia even in liberal hearts for the managerial approach of George W. Bush; former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, wrote an op-ed in USA Today that concluded: "In a time of national crisis, we look to our president to acknowledge, as Harry Truman did, that it is at his desk where the buck stops." In the three months following the accident, nearly a third of the articles written for major newspapers about the oil spill mentioned Obama in their headlines or lead paragraphs.
The president responded to the pressure by playing tough, telling NBC's Today show: "I don't sit around talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick." Obama followed his salty quip with a formal address from the Oval Office, designed to reassure the public that the president was leading the response to the spill. Marshaling Churchillian rhetoric, Obama promised: "We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever's necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."
The episode spoke volumes about America's cult of the presidency, and about the way in which disasters — both natural and man-made — have become tests of presidential acumen. But the consequences of our obsession with the president in the aftermath of such calamities are more than simply political. Our fixation on the White House badly distorts the way America thinks about and prepares for major disasters, and the way state and local officials — under whose jurisdiction most disaster response in fact falls — deal with everything from hurricanes and earthquakes to catastrophic oil spills.
A FEDERAL DISASTER
A major oil spill carries the same societal and political implications as a major hurricane, earthquake, or forest fire; though caused by man and not nature, it is still an acute, unexpected event that inflicts serious physical or environmental harm on a large population. In fact, several social scientists have argued that there really is no such thing as a purely natural disaster: A combination of human decisions and technical capabilities contribute to the risk for, and consequences of, all major disasters — and those human factors are what make such disasters significant. A massive flood in an uninhabited region is part of nature's cycle of renewal; when humans build a city in a floodplain, the deluge becomes a disaster.
When scholars examine the responses to major disasters — by both governments and private citizens — they almost always find that a failure to respond effectively after the fact had its roots in a failure to consider predictable risks before the disaster. And our tendency to look to the federal government — particularly the president — as an all-powerful source of response and relief only makes matters worse, obscuring the importance of advance preparation and of learning critical lessons in the aftermath of a catastrophe. After all, if the public implicitly understands failures of disaster response to be functions of presidential incompetence, we are unlikely to think through their actual causes very clearly. Furthermore, if presidents are forced to respond to such unrealistic and misplaced expectations, they are likely to deflect blame to other culprits, criticizing them for their failures to perfectly predict or respond to disasters. The result is simply more unreasonable expectations, rather than a redirection of focus and resources to the more mundane, yet far more important, challenge of properly gauging risk and vulnerability.
The Deepwater Horizon spill in particular highlights the drawbacks of looking to the president in times of disaster. Because of where the explosion occurred — in federal waters, rather than inside the borders of a particular locality or state — this incident demonstrates how limited a president's power can be even over matters within federal jurisdiction. And most disasters have even less to do with the president than the oil spill did, since most fall squarely under state or local jurisdiction.
Consider, for instance, Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans late in the summer of 2005. The storm overwhelmed the city's levees, causing massive flooding that left many thousands of residents stranded and claimed more than a thousand lives. In the days and weeks that followed, President Bush was accused of a slow and inadequate response; this widespread perception of failure did serious damage to his public standing. Whether Bush's response was a failure or not (given the severity of both the hurricane and the flooding, casualties were relatively low, and hundreds of thousands of residents were evacuated by federal authorities from the city within six days), the legal authority and responsibility for first response fell to local and state officials. In fact, the federal government stepped in only because the locals were overwhelmed. The Bush administration actually had to spend the first few days after the hurricane working to get state officials to allow the federal government to move beyond its usual supporting role and to take over the response efforts.
In the case of Katrina, looking to the president first and foremost was certainly inappropriate. But it is not much more appropriate when a disaster occurs within federal territory, as was the case with the Deepwater Horizon.
It is true that a large portion of the responsibility for the initial response did in fact fall to the federal government — from the Coast Guard's early efforts to contain the fire aboard the doomed rig, to the significant federal resources dedicated to sealing the well, containing the spill, and cleaning up the surface oil (both in the water and on shore). Still, none of this suggests that the locus of response and recovery work should have been 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — because the president had little to no control over the causes and consequences of the disaster. The BP spill traces its origins to oil-exploration techniques so risky that occasional accidents should be expected, and to the institutions — both public and private — that failed to think through those risks adequately.
Above all, responsibility lies with BP. Despite the increasingly hazardous nature of deep-water oil exploration, the company was poorly prepared for an explosion of the sort that rocked the Deepwater Horizon, and for the leak that followed. Evidence can be found in BP's advance safety plan, which was rife with embarrassing boilerplate. The 582-page document, titled "Regional Oil Spill Response Plan — Gulf of Mexico," offers ample guidance on how to handle the news media, but little about handling a gushing oil leak from a deep-water well. Large parts of the plan appear to have been borrowed from off-the-shelf documents written with other regions of the world in mind; a section titled "Sensitive Biological & Human-Use Resources," for instance, warns that a spill might harm seals, sea otters, and walruses — even though these animals are found nowhere near the Gulf of Mexico.
In BP's early attempts to stem the flow of oil, the company seemed not to grasp the danger of making matters worse by further damaging the well head — as indeed BP did when a remotely operated submersible failed to close a valve and accidentally crashed into the open well head in May. Early efforts to protect the coastline by using chemical dispersants, too, demonstrated BP's ignorance — this time about the damage such dispersants could do to the gulf's unique marine life. Only after three months of botched attempts did BP learn the right lessons, finally landing on an effective solution to the spill in late July.
These mishaps represented not avarice or even technical incompetence but, above all, a failure to properly account for risk and vulnerability — the blame for which extends far beyond BP. Because the public looked to the president to play Superman, however, the administration was compelled to redirect public anger — and, with it, thoroughly unreasonable expectations — toward the besieged energy company. The Obama administration accused BP of recklessness driven by greed, lashed out at the company's public-relations campaign (even in the course of the White House's own public-relations campaign), and excoriated BP executives for engaging in a "ridiculous spectacle" of blame during congressional hearings. Indeed, even though the name was jettisoned in 1998, senior Obama-administration officials pejoratively referred to the company as British Petroleum (it is surprising that no American politician invoked the company's older name, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company). Yet for all the sound and fury, very little was added to our understanding of the accident's causes; though mudslinging in the aftermath of a crisis is a great American pastime, in this case, it helped not at all in advancing better solutions for stopping the leak and cleaning up the gulf.
Meanwhile, the president also sought to distance himself from the federal regulators who should have overseen BP, while channeling the public's anger against them — thus trying to make it clear that he was not responsible for their failures, and that those failures would not be repeated on his watch. And indeed, those failures were manifold; if BP was negligent in failing to plan for an accident, the government agencies responsible for regulating oil exploration committed serious dereliction of their most basic duties. The Department of the Interior agency tasked with overseeing energy development in federal territory — the former Minerals Management Service, renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement after the spill — approved BP's boilerplate safety plan in July 2009. A year earlier, the Department of the Interior's inspector general had criticized the service for a litany of abuses: Agency staff accepted gifts from the oil companies they were supposed to be regulating, and investigators uncovered evidence of sexual misconduct between regulators and oil-company representatives. Top agency officials even used cocaine and, in one memorable scene, snorted crystal meth off a toaster oven.
But again, publicity surrounding these most sensational incidents at the agency obscured deeper problems. The bigger flaw in the Minerals Management Service was the agency's failure to understand both the purpose and conduct of regulation: to first determine an acceptable risk threshold, and then to ensure that it does not get crossed.
Of course, "How safe is safe enough?" is a political question, not a purely scientific one. Technical data can inform the decision, but the government and the market must translate the public's tolerance for danger into standard enforcement procedures. This is why safety standards differ from one domain to the next; in the commercial airline industry, for example, people will tolerate virtually no risk of accident or death, yet they tolerate much greater risks in car travel. A regulatory agency, then, must possess a technical understanding of the risk inherent in its industry; it must also understand just how much of that risk the public is willing to accept in order to reap the benefits that the industry provides.
But in the case of deep-water oil exploration, the Minerals Management Service failed on both counts, as did BP. The company contracted out a formal assessment of exploration risk in the Gulf of Mexico to a Norwegian firm, Det Norske Veritas, which in 2007 found little evidence of danger. The contractor's study determined that the risk of losing control of a deep-water well was essentially zero, and that other sources of risk were "routine" in the industry and did not suggest the possibility of a significant spill.
These calculations appear ridiculous in hindsight, but they are a classic example of failing to recognize that, as Stanford University's Scott Sagan has remarked, "things that have never happened before happen all the time." And clearly, both the oil companies and the regulators should have pursued a better understanding of the hazards of relatively new technology.
But it is our way of thinking about disasters — especially our expectation that, should anything go wrong, the president and the federal government will take care of it — that makes us less likely to grasp the real lesson of American disaster management: namely, that it falls to state and local governments, to private industry, and to us as citizens to prepare in advance for, and to respond well after, a major catastrophe.
LOOKING TO WASHINGTON
When disaster strikes anywhere in America, we expect Washington to strike back. In 2006, with the wreckage of Katrina still strewn across the Gulf Coast, a CBS News poll asked a random sample of Americans who was to blame for conditions in New Orleans, and especially for the fact (really, an erroneously reported assertion mistaken for fact) that "hundreds of thousands of people were unable to evacuate." Six months after the disaster, 27% of respondents said FEMA and the federal government were most to blame, while another 11% blamed the president personally — despite the fact that FEMA and the federal government have no formal authority to conduct evacuations. Even on the right, the rhetoric of limited government quickly gives way to the expectation that the government will step in when things get bad: Criticizing the slow response to the BP spill in May, Louisiana's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, said, "We need our federal government exactly for this kind of crisis."
Why do the press and the public focus on Washington when disaster strikes? There are many causes, involving considerations historical, institutional, and, of course, political.
It is true that the federal government has had some role in disaster response since the early years of the republic; until the middle of the 20th century, however, that role was quite minimal, and generally took the form of one-off appropriations by Congress to communities struck by disasters.
The first of these occurred in 1803, and provided a temporary waiver from tariffs to the residents Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after much of the city was devastated by a fire. The waiver was intended to encourage investment in the city's reconstruction and offer its residents some financial relief. Over the following century, Congress made such ad hoc appropriations more than 100 times — providing aid to the Missouri Territory after the area suffered a devastating series of earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, to New York City merchants after the great fire of 1835, and to dozens of other communities hit by floods, fires, earthquakes, and even Indian raids.
These early efforts were not without controversy, as some critics — including members of Congress — questioned the constitutionality of such federal action. Advocates for aid, however, liberally interpreted the Constitution's "general welfare" clause as granting the authority to tax and spend for disaster relief — and in most cases, these advocates prevailed. Once the federal government had intervened to assist the victims of one disaster, it became difficult to argue that the victims of another should not receive the same level of support (or more). Thus, by the 20th century, the debate over the constitutionality of federal relief had largely died down; the argument shifted from whether Congress had the power to tax and spend for disaster aid to just how far government's obligations extended.
Still, early federal disaster interventions were relatively few and far between, and the country's attitude toward major catastrophes throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries was quite different than it is today. Without the immediacy of modern communications technology, a disaster in one part of the country generally did not make an impression on people in another part. Word of the Missouri earthquakes in 1811, for instance, did not reach the east coast for six weeks, and there was hardly a general expectation that the federal government would take direct action in response to a storm or fire in any one of the states.
It was not until the Great Depression that the theretofore limited federal role of providing financial support to areas affected by disasters was first formalized (and assigned to the executive branch). The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created in 1932 to help spur investment and lending, was also assigned the task of disbursing federal grants to disaster victims — assessing the damage that businesses and families had suffered, and providing them with relief based on a pre-set formula. This new arrangement, which took the place of ad hoc appropriations, was in keeping with the growing prominence of the president over Congress — a trend that has continued unabated since the early 20th century.
Even this newly formalized federal role in disaster response, however, involved only financial help in the wake of a disaster, not first-response and rescue efforts. Federal agencies, and especially the military, had been involved in some disaster response and recovery on an ad hoc basis for years: After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, for instance, the Army worked to restore order in the city (though it did so quite informally, having received no specific instructions from the president or the War Department in Washington). Only with the Flood Control Act of 1944 — which gave the Army Corps of Engineers some authority to manage the response to major floods — did the federal government take upon itself any recurring, formal responsibility to act in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
Things changed after World War II, largely because the exigencies of the Cold War drove the development of a new national-security bureaucracy. An amalgam of new federal agencies — responsible for what has been called civil defense, emergency management, or homeland security — took form, and began to issue regulations and offer grants that shaped how states and localities planned for disasters. The need for some secrecy in these agencies' operations — combined with their capacity to provide large grants of money to state and local governments — created a more hierarchical emergency-planning structure than had existed before, and brought that structure under the authority of the executive branch. Even though the new top-down national-coordination regime was intended to help the country in the case of a nuclear attack or major war, this same apparatus soon came to be used in response to other emergencies and disasters. The states themselves also pushed this process along, often eagerly welcoming a growing federal role in disaster response, which would take some of the responsibility off their shoulders.
The new federal role was perhaps first evident in the response to Hurricane Diane, which struck in August 1955. Making landfall in North Carolina, the storm caused massive rain and flooding and was, at the time, the costliest hurricane in American history. The Federal Civil Defense Administration — created in 1951 to prepare the country for the possibility of a nuclear war — worked to coordinate federal assistance to cope with the storm's aftermath.
Soon, state and local officials began to see the potential of employing the burgeoning civil-defense apparatus to help contend with the consequences of major storms, fires, and other disasters; it wasn't long before they started to lobby Congress for aid. According to one history of the period, "Congressional committees soon joined the ranks of those who felt that fear of infringement of States' rights and local prerogatives was only a smokescreen for evasion of federal responsibility for civil defense." And so, in 1958, Congress amended the 1950 Civil Defense Act to reflect "joint" responsibility and "partnership" among levels of government in dealing with emergency response. In time, state and local officials began to use the federal civil-defense bureaucracy largely for natural-disaster preparedness and response.
A fundamental change in the attitudes of state and local leaders toward natural disasters also drove this trend. For much of American history, political and business leaders routinely minimized the effects of disasters (and the poor planning and response of local governments) in order to avoid driving away investment. After the cataclysmic 1906 earthquake that more or less destroyed San Francisco, residents went to great lengths to portray the city as having been largely devastated by fire, downplaying the risk of earthquakes that might scare off new residents and businesses. Charleston, South Carolina, had done much the same after a powerful 1886 earthquake. With improvements in communication technology, however, disasters became national spectacles; the immediacy of radio reports and TV images meant there was no denying their impact, and no hiding serious failures of state and local response. So officials began instead to emphasize their communities' vulnerabilities, and to exaggerate the damaging effects of disasters, in the hope of obtaining more federal money.
Hurricane Camille, the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the United States in the new media age, exemplified the trend. Camille struck the Mississippi coast on August 17, 1969, with wind speeds over 200 miles per hour. The storm continued north and then east through the Appalachian Mountains, killing 259 people and causing $1.42 billion in damage ($8.43 billion in today's dollars). Some localities were well prepared for the storm's wind and water, and they evacuated smoothly. In other places, however, local governments vanished in the face of disaster. One government report, borrowing the parlance of civil defense, noted that Mississippi coastal towns had problems with "continuity of government" — in other words, the local governments had ceased functioning, because key officials had abandoned their posts and evacuated along with their families. Media coverage of these failures put pressure on the federal government to fill the gaps.
Throughout the 1960s, the growing federal role in disaster response involved a number of different agencies — such as the Office of Emergency Preparedness (operated out of the White House) and the Office of Civil Defense (managed by the Defense Department). But none of these agencies was quite designed to address disaster relief, and, over time, the interaction of the various organizations became unwieldy. So in 1973, President Richard Nixon consolidated federal disaster-response efforts under a new umbrella agency — the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration — overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The new agency mostly managed grants for recovery efforts, since this was still most of what federal disaster response involved.
Yet states and localities wanted the federal government to go further. In 1978, the National Governors Association issued a report calling for a "comprehensive national emergency management system" — one that would centralize planning for natural disasters and civil defense, as well as provide a clearinghouse for federal grants. The NGA report couched its recommendations in national-security concerns — arguing that states lacked the capacity to prepare for acts of terrorism and thermonuclear war — but it seemed to have been driven above all by the frustration of state and local officials, who found the federal disaster-relief grant-application process cumbersome because grant opportunities were distributed across dozens of agencies.
As a result, at the request of the Carter administration, Congress established a single agency charged directly with the management of federal disaster-relief functions. These responsibilities were to include some of the civil-defense functions previously overseen by the Defense Department, and especially the management of grants to victims. In 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was born — taking over the disparate disaster-response programs of other departments, serving an important coordinating function, and becoming the face of federal disaster response.
Since 1988, FEMA has also been the chief agency responsible for implementing the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (enacted that year), which provides federal dollars to fund disaster-response and recovery efforts. Under the Stafford Act, the federal government pays for 75 to 100% of response and recovery costs in situations in which the president issues a formal disaster declaration. Such a declaration, according to the statute, is to be issued when a disaster is "of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and the affected local governments." The financial advantages of disaster declarations for state and local governments are immense, which has led officials to pressure Washington for declarations following every event that might imaginably qualify. These officials have often enlisted their congressional delegations to help with such requests; as a result, presidents have made well over 1,000 disaster declarations since 1988. These have covered not only severe hurricanes, earthquakes, and industrial accidents, but also many heavy rain and snow storms, heat waves, and fires — incidents that, just a few decades ago, would have been handled entirely by state and local governments.
In 2003, FEMA ceased to be an independent agency, and was incorporated into the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The move did not significantly change FEMA's structure or functions, though it did put greater emphasis on civil-defense responsibilities, which include planning for the aftermath of a serious terrorist attack. Indeed, among the most prominent criticisms directed against the agency in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was that the focus on security and terrorism concerns had come at the expense of preparation for natural disasters. Some in Congress sought to separate the two functions, leaving post-terrorism response to Homeland Security while restoring FEMA to independent status. And the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act did give FEMA more autonomy within the Department of Homeland Security, changing the agency's status to be more like that of the Coast Guard and Secret Service. Yet FEMA today still continues to function as a sub-agency of the Department of Homeland Security; it thus remains home to the nation's key civil-defense and terrorist-attack preparation efforts, even as it remains the federal coordinator for other disaster-response efforts.
FEMA's prominence and the broad range of its functions — from offering advice on zoning and building plans to running the government's emergency-incident management center — can easily mask a simple truth: The federal role in emergency management, preparation, and response still comes down largely to funding state and local activity, just as it has for two centuries.
Roughly 40% of FEMA's $10 billion annual budget goes exclusively to state and local grant programs; another 20% goes to the Disaster Relief Fund (which supports grants given to victims of disasters under the Stafford Act); and a further 30% goes to the National Flood Insurance Fund (established in 1968 to provide coverage to residents of flood-prone areas in return for state and local communities' accepting federal floodplain-management rules). What we might think of as direct action in response to a disaster — the kind of action the public looked for after Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon spill — is thus a very small part of FEMA's responsibility, activity, and budget. The federal role in disaster response is decidedly a supporting one.
This is as it should be. While genuine civil defense (like dealing with a biological or chemical attack) and major public-health responses (like contending with a pandemic) are appropriate federal responsibilities, responses to natural disasters and industrial accidents are best left with state and local officials closer to the scene. Such disasters are, by their very nature, local events.
This does not mean, however, that the public's expectations are about to change: Americans will continue to look to the president when things go wrong, for reasons that run deep in America's history and political culture. Even so, it would be decidedly counterproductive for policymakers to give in to this impulse. Vesting the president with the responsibility to command a response to every disaster would encourage one-size-fits-all solutions — thereby reducing the likelihood that either disaster response or public satisfaction would be improved.
What, then, are our presidents to do?
RISK AND RESPONSE
Although inevitably trapped by public expectations they can never meet, presidents have tried to make the most of the fact that voters, the press, and state and local officials look to the White House when disasters strike. Above all, they have tried to use their authority (both legal and moral) to push government agencies at all levels, non-profits, and sometimes private companies to work together following major disasters — even when no one is sure who will pay for relief, or who counts as a victim. This hardly answers the public's unrealistic desire for a superhuman response, but it has often saved property and lives, including in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and the gulf oil spill.
On the whole, however, the focus on the national government, and on the president in particular, distracts us from the best way of protecting life and property: by properly assessing the risk of disaster, and adjusting our industry and development practices — not to mention expectations — accordingly. And here, the federal government could play a constructive and important role.
Weather events and technological accidents become disasters only when people build and live in harm's way, and when they either do not receive or do not act upon warnings. And the reason disaster losses increased throughout the 20th century, and will likely continue to increase, is that Americans have pursued ever more development in vulnerable areas. For instance, if the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 struck today, it would be the most damaging hurricane to make landfall since records have been kept — far outpacing Katrina — because of the dense development in southern Florida.
Most land-use decisions that put people at risk are made by local governments and private citizens, not the president. So rather than struggling to look like Superman after a disaster strikes, the president could better use his bully pulpit — and the federal government's emergency-management resources — to draw attention to risks and vulnerabilities in advance, and to encourage and help state and local officials to prepare for them.
The federal government could provide more information about risks and vulnerabilities through flood mapping, for example, so that communities and people who are threatened can make more informed decisions about the proper response — whether it be to protect themselves financially, prepare to evacuate, or move altogether. Unfortunately, the topographical flood maps issued by FEMA today sometimes use data that are decades old and do not take into account structural-mitigation efforts or residential or commercial developments that change the shape of the land. With more resources and support from agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — not to mention some pressure from the White House — FEMA could issue better maps, and on a more regular basis. And through agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey, the government could also help develop a more organized means of assessing risks of other dangers — for instance, greatly enhancing the system of rating and mapping not only floodplains but also wildfire and earthquake zones. Other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security's infrastructure-protection arm, could extend rating codes to critical national infrastructure like the power grid — the failure of which risks consequences as severe as those of the most serious natural disasters.
Moreover, the government could use the array of existing federal subsidies for land development more constructively — withholding subsidies for developments in wetlands and uninhabited coastal regions (subsidies that now exist as a result of state and local pressure). Similarly, extending federal protections for coastal wetlands would provide a barrier against flood hazards (in addition to environmental benefits). Federal agencies could also encourage good practices at the state and local levels by more aggressively pushing improved model standards and stricter building codes, or by helping state and local officials buy up land in particularly vulnerable areas to keep risky development down.
Of course, when states and localities do not function well, the federal government will always find itself in a tight spot. FEMA, the Coast Guard, and other agencies can mount their responses, but they will inevitably arrive after state and local officials, businesses, and citizens have already borne the brunt of a disaster. The most helpful supporting role the federal government could play, then, would be one that enabled these officials, businesses, and citizens to be better prepared in advance, and to respond more effectively in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The ideal role for the president is not responder-in-chief, but rather preparer-in-chief.
Since oil began spurting into the Gulf of Mexico, however, President Obama has performed according to script, assigning blame to BP management just as he did to Wall Street bankers after the economic crisis. A morality play of rage and power following calamity can be an appealing public-relations tool, but it hides the most important lessons about disaster prevention — lessons about failures to identify risk and vulnerability before disasters occur. The president should stake out a more limited and focused role for himself — not only for his own sake, but, most of all, for the victims of America's next major disaster.
Patrick S. Roberts is an assistant professor of public administration and policy in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. This academic year, he is the Ghaemian Junior Scholar-in-Residence at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.