Book Review: Disasters and the American State by Patrick S. Roberts

In Disasters and the American State, Patrick S. Roberts has written a thoroughly persuasive account of the long and uneven development of what he calls the American “disaster state.” Roberts’ fundamental goal is to help us understand contemporary disaster politics, including how past politics and institutions have given rise to these politics. He draws on insights from the literature on American political development to provide us with this account, which emphasizes the role of historical patterns as well as idiosyncrasies in creating these politics, and their roles in shaping the American state. The book is very well written, provocative, and well researched. Anyone interested in American political development should find it compelling, and of course, disaster scholars may be especially interested.

Roberts argues that the federal government has been involved in disaster politics, albeit in rather ad hoc fashion, for most of the nation’s history. In the early republic, Congress was the dominant actor in disaster politics, and relief typically came in the form of tax relief or land grants rather than appropriations. Roberts offers an example in a major fire in Portsmouth, MA in 1806. In response to that fire, Congress suspended the collection of bonds in that town in order to relieve its financial burden. After the Civil War, Congress continued to predominate, but it began to make special appropriations for the relief of populations affected by disasters. Additionally, the pace of Congressional enactment of relief measured doubled compared to the antebellum period, and Reconstruction also saw the first bureaucratization of disaster relief as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands distributed aid in peacetime for disaster relief, among other things.

The Congress-centric story of federal disaster politics begins to weaken as the White House took on a stronger role in the field beginning, Roberts argues, with Calvin Coolidge’s response to the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. By this time, Americans expected more leadership from the White House in domestic affairs generally than they had in earlier periods (e.g. Lowi 1986), and Roberts shows that the realm of disaster response was no exception. Coolidge took unprecedented steps to relieve the Midwest: he established a special cabinet committee to coordinate the national response, and appointed Herbert Hoover (the Commerce Secretary) to direct the massive relief effort of the American Red Cross.

Roberts argues that the ad hoc nature of federal disaster response persisted until the mid-twentieth century. In the post-war period, however, the federal government began work to coordinate and systematize its disaster responses by passing the Disaster Relief Act of 1950. This Act provided that the president had broad, discretionary authority to declare what constituted a disaster eligible for federal aid, defined who in the federal government was to distribute the funds, outlined procedures for how those funds were to be allocated and distributed, and established that relief funds would only be sent to state and local governments, not to individuals. In this way, the Act contributed both to the shift toward presidential power and leadership, and to the layered, federalism-infused nature of disaster politics.

This era also marked another enduring shift in federal disaster politics: existential fear driven by Cold War led to the fusion of “disaster” and “emergency” and thus left disaster response tied up with civil defense, both socially and institutionally. Roberts shows that this amalgamation has largely persisted even as the threat of nuclear war has waned, and that the lingering “Cold War mindset” has been an important reason that disaster relief efforts today are frequently unsatisfactory to the public at large. That is, many agencies – especially FEMA – had dual missions: security and disaster response. Importantly, Roberts argues that the “security missions” of these agencies had major impacts on their ability to respond effectively to disasters. The creation of FEMA epitomized these competing strands: the organization was only loosely connected; a series of stovepipes separating various divisions and processes, and three distinct cultures divided the agency (civil defense, disaster relief, firefighting). The complexities led to the adoption of the “all hazards” approach, wherein “government will use the same plans, procedures, resources, and personnel to address all kinds of hazards and disasters” (p. 80). At different times, one of these missions necessarily took precedence over the other; the chief concern at any given time affected staffing decisions, attention from Congress, and public image. Thus the dual purposes of these organizations necessarily reduced their abilities to address either mission fully.

Roberts shows that the federal role in disaster relief has expanded greatly since the 1960s – but also that public satisfaction with federal responses is consistently quite low during this period. This is partly due to the fact that agencies were pulled in different directions by their dual missions, and did not have sufficient resources to address both missions. Another factor in the low satisfaction with federal disaster response is due to a general awareness that the government has an enlarged capacity to relieve federal disasters – that is, the fact of the growing “disaster state” itself inflates expectations of efficiency and efficacy in society.

This “dual mission” problem was temporarily abated in FEMA in the 1990s under the tutelage of James Witt, the FEMA chief appointed by Bill Clinton. Witt, Roberts argues, was able to clarify FEMA’s mission, improve customer service, and perhaps most importantly, consciously aligned FEMA’s gals with the reelection goals of Congressmen and the president (see also Roberts 2006). By refining and clarifying FEMA’s mission, and allocating its resources in accordance with that mission, FEMA became remarkably more effective and efficient – indeed, it went from laughing-stock to a genuine model bureaucracy.

Roberts argues that after 9/11, the quick absorption of FEMA into the new Department of Homeland Security, and the concomitant addition of terrorism preparedness to its core mission, is a prime example of how “government’s capability to deal with disaster could not keep up with the public’s rising expectations” (p. 126). Under Witt, FEMA had become a model agency largely because it was successful in narrowly defining its operational mission (that is, doing relatively few things, but doing them well). Public demand for protection from an amorphous terrorist threat, and perceptions of the agency’s power and ability to respond to such threat, outstripped its actual capacity for action.

Roberts argues that a reputation for competence and efficiency can be a source of bureaucratic autonomy and independence (however unstable). That is, FEMA’s reputation as the effective “all hazards” disaster agency allowed it to act independently. This uncertain reputational autonomy also left the agency exposed to destructive forms of politicization when it failed to live up to that reputation, such as after Hurricane Katrina. Here Roberts makes an important contribution to our understanding of bureaucratic autonomy. One of the (theoretical) virtues of administrative governance is political independence, that is, the making and implementation of policy on the bases of sound economic and scientific determinations made by experts, rather than on the bases of partisan or parochial politics.

Roberts closes the books with several important observations about the both the realities and potentialities of disaster mitigation in the U.S. First, that politicians’ claims and the public’s expectations about the government’s ability to prevent or ameliorate disasters greatly outstrip its actual capacity to do so. Second, that the disaster state (like the administrative state more generally) is extremely complex, being shaped by presidents, legislators, bureaucrats, federalism, the emergency management profession, and public expectations, all of which respond to their own separate incentive structures – and all of which change over time. Finally, he argues that the incentives of the chief actors tend to emphasize short time horizons (often no further than the next election), whereas many truly meaningful disaster mitigation strategies, such as building and zoning codes, take decades to implement and do not lend themselves to credit claiming by politicians, and thus are often cast aside in favor of more politically expedient measures. These observations should give pause to scholars, practitioners, and citizens concerned with disaster politics and policy in America’s future.

My main qualm with the book concerns the role of the public in the processes of social construction in Roberts’ narrative.

Roberts states that central puzzle of his book is “what is the role of the federal government in addressing disasters, and how has it changed? The answer is that citizens, members of Congress, disaster managers, presidents, and the media inadvertently shape what counts as a disaster and how much responsibility the federal government has in addressing it. This process of social construction occurs while various actors pursue their own interests, whether winning reelections, making promises to voters, managing organizations, reporting the news, or preparing for disasters.” (p. 176).

To this end, Roberts offers a great deal of evidence of these sorts of construction occurring in Congress (in the 19th century), and in the upper echelons of bureaucracies (in the 20th century). He also makes a strong case that media plays an important role in the construction of “disaster”, especially since the 1920s or so. For most of this developmental story, though, the role of average citizens – of the public at large – is unclear. Roberts acknowledges that most works in APD try to use public opinion polling and elections to measure public influence on development – yet also notes that “Public expectations are filtered through the news media” and that elections in which disasters are a major issue are “rare” (p. 189). These admissions suggest, to me, that this process is almost totally elite-driven. That is, this narrative suggests to me that the primary locus of the social construction of disaster was driven primarily by Congress and local, parochial elites in the 19th century, and in the 20th century, shifted from Congress to the presidency, and from local elites to the emergent national media. Today, even the absurdly high expectations of government’s capacity to respond to and mitigate disasters, held by much of the general public, has likely been driven in large part by media. Roberts’ extended discussion of “elite panic” (elite overreaction to the fear of crisis, social breakdown, and challenges to their authority, such as we saw in the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina) underscores this interpretation.  None of this is to say that this is not social construction, rather only that even the modest role for the public that Roberts suggests is, I think, overstated.

I was also surprised to see very little discussion of the Army Corps of Engineers. Roberts’ account of the modern disaster state centers on FEMA, and for good reason. Yet the Army Corps is an important actor in the disaster state (and has been so for quite a long time), playing key roles in both mitigating and responding to disasters. Further, the Corps is, arguably, a very unique bureaucracy – one that may be able to exercise the sort of reputational autonomy Roberts observes in FEMA during the Witt era on a much more regular basis than other agencies (Adler 2012; Shallat 1989; see my previous discussion of this possibility here). Thus, I would like to have seen more thorough treatment of this important disaster agency, including its ability to act autonomously, and its role in constructing the meaning of disaster (and the meaning of “response” and “mitigation”) over time.

Finally, another point about which I’d like to see more work: as a scholar interested in American Constitutional development, I would have like to have seen more about the debates in Congress regarding the constitutionality of proposed relief measures. To be sure, this is largely beyond the scope of Roberts’ study, which focuses on the growth of the “disaster state.” His discussion of the construction of this state, especially before 1927, raises some very interesting questions about constitutional construct in a system of separated powers (or shared powers and separated institutions). For example, Roberts argues that in the first several decades of America’s existence, debates in Congress as to whether or not to provide relief for some particular misfortune (earthquakes, fires, etc.) often centered on questions of constitutional power – specifically, whether the Constitution actually empowered Congress to provide any such relief. Eventually, we see, precedent accumulated and debates over constitutionality presumably fade to the background and then disappear completely by the late 19th century. I would like to see much more about this process – the ins-and-outs of the arguments in Congress, how they changed over time, why they ultimately disappeared, etc. For now I’ll have to hope that some enterprising scholar will pick up this important question that Roberts suggested here.

All in all, Patrick Roberts’ Disaster and the American State is excellent – imminently readable, well sourced, and compelling; it is must-reading for individuals interested in disaster politics and policy, state capacity, or American political development.


Full citation to Roberts’ book:

Roberts, Patrick S. 2013. Disasters and the American State: How Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Public Prepare for the UnexpectedCambridge University Press.

Other sources cited:

Adler, William D. 2012. “State Capacity and Bureaucratic Autonomy in the Early United States: The Case of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.” Studies in American Political Development 26: 107-124.

Lowi, Theodore J. 1986. The Personal President: Power Invested, Promise Unfulfilled. Cornell University Press.

Roberts, Patrick S. 2006. “FEMA and the Prospects for Reputation-Based Autonomy.” Studies in American Political Development 20(Spring): 57-87.

Shallat, Todd. 1989. “Engineering Policy: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Historical Foundations of Power.” The Public Historian 11(3): 6-27.

Barron v. Baltimore

In August of 1831, the Supreme Court heard its first case in which a litigant claimed that one of his rights protected by the Bill of Rights had been violated by a State government. This was the case Barron v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (32 U.S. 243, 1883), and it so happens that the right alleged to have been violated was the right against uncompensated takings protected by the Fifth Amendment.

Barron v. Baltimore

John Barron was a Baltimore merchant, and co-owner (with John Craig) of a prosperous wharf in the eastern part of Baltimore harbor. Craig and Barron purchased the wharf in 1815 for $25,000. At the time it was one of only 34 wharves in the harbor. In the trial record, numerous witnesses described as among the best and most valuable wharves in the city, due to its location and the depth of the water surrounding it, which allowed for access by very large ships.

As part of a larger public works project, the city of Baltimore diverted several streams into the harbor directly adjacent to Craig and Barron’s wharf. Within a few years, sedimentation from the streams left the water there so shallow that Craig and Barron’s wharf could no longer service large vessels. In 1822, Craig and Barron sued the city for compensation (they asked for $20,000) for the decline in value of their wharf. The three judge panel instructed the jury that Barron should be awarded damages commensurate with his loss (if they find there to be such loss), even if they believe the defendants were acting in good faith for the public good. In March of 1828, the jury returned the verdict in favor of Barron, awarding him $4,500 (Craig had died by this time), which the court endorsed on May 5, 1828.

Baltimore appealed the verdict to Maryland court of appeals on July 31, 1828 (the case was argued in December of that year). The Maryland appeals court did not issue its decision until December of 1830: it held that the lower court had “manifestly erred” and ordered that the ruling “be reversed, annulled, and held entirely as void.” The award to Barron was overturned, and he was ordered to pay all court costs (the case was not remanded for retrial in the county court).

Barron immediately appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the case was argued there in August 1831. Barron claimed that the city of Baltimore had unconstitutionally deprived him of his property without compensation, and was thus liable for damages

The Court indicated in the record a request that counsel for Barron restrict his argument to the jurisdictional question (and thus omit the tort and damages claim)). This was an inauspicious development for Barron – it meant that the Court was likely only to consider the technical legal matter of whether it (the Supreme Court) even had the power to rule on a case such as Barron’s, and would not consider the alleged damages. The Court announced its decision in January of 1833.

Barron was thus the first case in which the Supreme Court was confronted with the argument that a provision of the Bill of Rights was violated by a state government. Marshall acknowledged that this case was an important one for this reason – but, he says, one “not of much difficulty.” Marshall, speaking for the Court, argues that the central purpose of the Constitution was to create, yet limit, a new, central government – thus the provisions therein are applicable to the government created thereby. Put differently, the Constitution simultaneously created and limited a new central government – thus those limitations apply only to the central government. This argument clearly harkens to Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist 83: “The United States, in their united or collective capacity, are the OBJECT to which all general provisions of the Constitution must necessarily be construed to refer.” That is to say, it fit well within the accepted understanding of the Constitution at the time.

Marshall argues further that the provisions of the Bill of Rights fit with Article I, Section 9 (limits on Congress), and that if the Framer’s had wanted to limit the states, they could have and would have done so in “plain and intelligible language.” Thus because the Bill of Rights applies only to the federal government, Marshall concluded that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the matter, and dismissed the case.

With the Supreme Court having dismissed the case, the decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals stood. Barron lost, and state (and by extension, municipal) authority to exercise broad powers over their internal affairs – including impinging on the free use of property – was affirmed. The flip side of that coin is, aggrieved individuals and groups could only seek protection of their rights in state courts, pursuant to state constitutions (in most cases).

This is no longer how things work. Individuals and groups now routinely make claims in federal courts that state or local governments have violated rights protected by the federal constitution. This is because of the so-called Civil War Amendments (13, 14, and 15 – especially 14), which fundamentally altered the nature of government in the United States. In a future post, I’ll discuss the 14th Amendment and spend some time elaborating how exactly it changed the way people make rights claims under the federal constitution. I think this case is still worth knowing because it helps us to understand how we got to where we are today – and reminds us that federal courts have not always been the ardent protectors of rights that they are often thought to be today.


An interesting historical aside: In 1827 (while the case was still in Baltimore county court), Roger Taney joined the case to represent Baltimore (alongside principal attorney John Scott), though Taney was no longer associated with the case when it reached the Supreme Court. Taney would go on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1836-1864), and authored one of the Court’s most infamous decisions, Dred Scott v. Sanford (in which the Court held, among other things, that African-Americans were not, and could never be, citizens of the United States).


Suggested Reading:

Amar, Akhil Reed. 1998. The Bill of Rights. Yale University Press.

Barron v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833).

Doherty, Brendan J. 2007. “Interpreting the Bill of Rights and the Nature of Federalism: Barron v. City of Baltimore” Journal of Supreme Court History 32(3): 211-228.

Ely, James W. 2008. The Guardian of Every Other Right, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, Alexander (as Publius). The Federalist No. 83.