Evaluating the Democratic Candidates' Disaster Policy

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By: Amanda Savitt and Samantha Montano

Across the country communities are beginning to experience the consequences of climate change. Of these consequences, climate-driven disasters like the wildfires in California, river flooding in the Midwest, and hurricanes along the coast capture our attention. We know too that these climate-driven disasters will become more severe without immediate and significant action on climate change. 

Over the past several months, the Democratic presidential candidates have released climate plans. They all begin the same way -- by citing the many devastating disasters that have unfolded around the country. They continue on to discuss their plans for addressing climate change itself. 

Despite framing their climate plans in the context of current and future disasters, the candidates have given considerably less attention to how we will manage those disasters. 

It is the emergency management system that is responsible for managing these unfolding consequences, and this system is already strained. This became especially apparent during the 2017 hurricane season as FEMA and other government agencies failed to meet the catastrophic needs in Puerto Rico. The emergency management system is underfunded, understaffed, and operating without the resources needed in an era of increasing risk. 

This system is not up for the task, but it could be.

As emergency management scholars, experts, and disaster survivors have said for decades, we need changes to emergency management policy. We need an emergency management system that is proactive, rather than reactive, a system that centers justice in its many forms and meets the needs of local communities before, during, and after disasters. We need policy and programs that are founded on the immense body of disaster research rather than lessons learned and the whims of political ideology. 

Anything short of comprehensive disaster policy reform will prevent us from keeping communities across the country safe, particularly in the face of the climate crisis

Many of the policy changes that research suggests are required to better protect our communities must be accomplished at a local level. However, there is also a need for national policy change. As the individuals who seek to be the next President of the United States it is reasonable to expect candidates to have a plan for managing the consequences of climate change, including disasters. If they themselves are unfamiliar with the nuances they should at least seek the advice of those who do.

In an effort to assess the state of candidates’ proposed policy we reviewed the plans of each democratic candidate that will be participating in the October 15th debate. All but one (Tulsi Gabbard) have some policy suggestions related to emergency management, but their commonalities stop there. We found candidates varied significantly in their proposed ideas. There are significant and glaring gaps in their plans that demonstrate a lack of understanding, or interest, in understanding emergency management as a constant cycle. There is remarkably little detail in how candidates would achieve their proposed ideas.

Importantly, we took a narrow view of emergency management policy. Others have analyzed the broader climate change and environmental policy suggestions, all of which have some bearing on emergency management. We kept categories relatively broad in an effort to demonstrate where candidates are in agreement even if their specific approaches differ. The full plans are linked below.  

We hope the candidates will work to develop more comprehensive emergency management policies, and consult the decades of research, and committed body of disasters scholars, that are available to them.

Mitigation Policies

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Preparedness Policies

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Recovery Policies

Cross-phase Policies

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