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.

Bureaucratic Autonomy

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics does not mean politics will not take an interest in you,” – this quotation is often attributed to Pericles, the prominent Athenian statesman of the 5th century BC. The point Pericles is making here is that citizens ignore politics at their own peril, as the decisions of politicians will bear on people in very real ways whether they know it or not. Social scientists and other academics have long been interested in the politics of administrative agencies for a similar reason: bureaucracy is not typically interesting to learn about (that’s not exactly true, some people surely find bureaucracy interesting), but the activities of bureaucrats touch virtually every aspect of modern life, and thus are certainly deserving of serious attention. Here at DPP, agencies like FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the EPA (among many others) are of particular interest because of the work they do in disaster policy and management.

One topic of much debate in scholarly circles concerns the tension between bureaucratic efficiency and democratic responsiveness. That is, one of the virtues of administrative governance is (in theory) political independence – making decisions and implementing policies on the bases of sound economic and scientific determinations made by experts in their respective fields instead of being decided on the basis of congressional log-rolling or parochialism. The presumptive downside is the same as the virtue – independence from politicians means that bureaucratic practices may run far from the mainstream of political will (which might be good or bad), and policies may be unresponsive to the needs of affected groups [see my previous posts on the different goals of politicians and bureaucrats for more on these issues].

For these reasons I think it is worthwhile to give some thought to the relative independence of those bureaucratic agencies that are tied up in the politics of property and disasters – and note that “independence” is not a fixed quantity, rather it varies over time. A solid understanding of the relative autonomy of an agency is necessary to understanding bureaucratic activity and policy – that is, a fairly autonomous agency will be motivated to act by very different considerations than an agency that is tightly dependent on Congress or some Congressional committee.

In a short history of the Army Corps of Engineers, Todd Shallat argues that the Corps has actively sought large projects to extend federal responsibility for natural resources, and that in doing so, it has “blurred the line between policymaking and program implementation” (1989, 7). Shallat argues that the Corps has generally built its authority in three main ways: through it’s “military approach” to action and problems, using “discretionary powers,” and by taking advantage of “the flexibility of its original mission” (1989, 9). Over time, the Corps has frequently sought high cost, highly complex, and innovative (often experimental) projects to bring “scientific glory” to nation (and to the Corps itself, no doubt). That is to say, there has always been a political side to the Corps’ considerations. Shallat also notes that the Corps has been known to influence policy by “broad”, perhaps even dubious, interpretations of the law (1989, 17).

A more recent study of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers has yielded some similar – and some new – insights on the topic. William Adler argues that “the Topogs” enjoyed “conditional bureaucratic autonomy” because of the long tenure of agency officials, their expertise on their subject, and lax oversight due to relative ignorance and disinterest by their principals (i.e. Congress) (2012, 111). Further, Adler argues that semi-autonomous, uniformed bureau chiefs at the War Department were crucial to many of these socioeconomic projects. As such, bureaus “such as the Corps of Topographical Engineers developed the ability to help shepherd their preferred policies into law or to create new policies on their own initiative when Congress declined to accede to their wishes” (2012, 110).

In an excellent case-study of FEMA, Patrick S. Roberts argues that a reputation for competence and efficiency can be a source of bureaucratic autonomy and independence (it is an unstable source, however). More specifically, he argues that under James Witt, the director of FEMA during the Clinton presidency, FEMA clarified its mission (by adopting the “all hazards” approach), made a concerted effort to improve customer service, and very importantly, consciously aligned its goals with reelection goals of Congressmen and the president. In doing so, FEMA went from laughing stock to a genuine model bureaucracy. FEMA’s reputation as the effective “all hazards” disaster agency allowed it to act independently – but also left the agency exposed to destructive forms of politicization when it failed to live up to that reputation (e.g. after Katrina).

These scholars have pointed to several general conditions that foster bureaucratic independence: 1) discretionary powers, and relatedly, 2) the ability to broadly interpret Congressional grants of authority, 3) reputation for expertise, 4) reputation for efficiency, 5) lax oversight, and 6) aligning agency goals with Congressional and presidential reelection goals. [Additionally, Shallat argues that the Corps’ militaristic approach is itself an independent source of autonomy, though he does not really tell us how that militarism imbues autonomy – I think this in and of itself deserves some serious study.] It is not necessary that an agency meet all of these conditions to be autonomous – autonomy is clearly a matter of degree, not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Further, all of these factors are conditional – it must be remembered that Congress can exercise significant influence over agencies, and no amount of reputation or discretionary interpretation can save an agency from concerted Congressional discipline. Still, Congress rarely goes after agencies with much force (typically Congress is satisfied to scapegoat agencies for benefit of media soundbites). Reputation, as Professor Roberts points out, is a very unstable source of independence. Thus these factors vary over time, as the exigencies of the moment changes, as political and social interests move from topic to topic, and as personnel and leadership in agencies turn over. Still, these factors do functionally increase the ability of an agency to act as an autonomous governor.

These ideas are of particular interest to us here at DPP because they suggests that the Corps of Engineers and FEMA –federal bureaucracies responsible planning and implementing many disaster and emergency management programs – as well as other agencies may be more independent than most bureaucracies are generally thought to be, both today and in the past. Moreover, they give us a good way to think about how any agency might be able to act independent of – or perhaps even contra to – the will of Congress and/or the president.

By the same token, these features suggest ways in which agencies are able circumvent or ignore public pressure. For example, many of the factors necessary for conditional autonomy have (arguably) been met within the Corps of Engineers at numerous points in its history. Further study is undoubtedly necessary, but by reminding us that the Corps has some unique characteristics and, perhaps, that it should not be analyzed in the same manner as other agencies, These scholars’ arguments could pave the way for a significantly better understanding of how flood mitigation policy in the Mississippi River Valley has developed over the last two centuries. It might tell us, for example, that “normal” Congressional politics cannot explain much of the development of flood mitigation policy – or it might tell us that policy developed as it did because the Corps was held close under the Congressional lash.

Again, bureaucratic autonomy is neither an unmitigated evil nor an unalloyed good. Bureaucratic autonomy was considered a great virtue, and thus was a primary goal of Progressive reformers reacting to the vestiges of the spoils system which frequently saw policy created and implemented in ways detrimental to the public interest (see for example, Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy). Autonomy is independence, however – including independence from “We, the People”, the ostensible American sovereigns (and our agents in Congress). This is to say, we should be cognizant of the give-and-take between independence and responsiveness. A wholly responsive agency is one that is prone to capture by special interests, and, history suggests, quite unlikely to produce any good policy. A wholly independent agency, on the other hand, is prone abuses and fundamentally antidemocratic. Striking a balance is never easy – and the “right” balance in any particular case is likely to depend more on one’s policy preferences than on some principled theory of bureaucratic politics. Still, effort to strike some principled, empirically grounded, generally applicable balance between autonomy and independence would surely not be effort wasted.


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 (October), 107-124.

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

Roberts, Patrick S. 2006. “FEMA After Katrina.” Policy Review 137(June/July): 15-33.

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.

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