A scholarly investigation into the factors that have boosted the U.S. government’s role in managing natural disasters as well as an account of the limitations of such oversight.
A professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a political scientist trained at Harvard, Roberts tackles the contentious issue of how well-suited the government is to lead the response to catastrophe. In a work characterized by impressive rigor and circumspection, he contends that a variety of social and political factors have created an administrative state more willing—but not necessarily more competent—to rise to such a challenge. Part of the problem is a function of democracy itself: though public expectations regarding the federal stewardship of emergency relief have steadily increased, the fractured nature of governmental supervision greatly impairs its effectiveness. The book helpfully draws out the history of administrative relief management, from President Herbert Hoover’s “centralized relief policy and decentralized implementation” following a destructive flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927 to the Hurricane Katrina debacle of 2005. Roberts’ balanced handling of the much misunderstood response to Katrina is magisterial; while he faults the federal government for its many failures, he also points out that state and local floundering, as well as infrastructural obstacles, made success all but unachievable. Moreover, Katrina, he argues, is not best understood as a result of “managerial lapses” but rather as an example of the “limits of what federal government disaster agencies can do to prepare for extreme events.” This is not only a powerfully argued, relentlessly fair account of the troubles that plague the federal management of disaster, but also an edifying comment on the limits any modern democracy faces in acting swiftly and effectively.
A thoughtful, provocative contribution to a timely debate.