Politics of Natural Disasters: Modeling Presidential Response Time to Natural Disasters in The United States, 1960–2005


When collective misfortunes such as natural disasters strike a society, people may expect their governments to rescue them from sufferings. Failure on the part of a government to respond in a timely fashion may lead people to blame their government for inaction and negligence of duty. This article examines presidential response time to natural disasters in the United States of America for the time between 1960 and 2005. It addresses two broader questions regarding timeliness of presidential response: Why is it that some presidents have been quicker to respond to natural disasters than others? And, why are the presidential responses quicker with respect to some disaster events while slower with respect to others? This study finds that, all other things being equal, Democratic presidents declare emergencies more quickly than Republican presidents. Consistent with the electoral logic of presidential response, presidents who are in their second term respond to disasters more slowly than presidents who are in their first term. Furthermore, increase in predisaster approval rating of the presidents appears to be associated with slightly higher chance of responding quickly. In addition to these substantive conclusions, this article makes further contribution by examining a series of regression frameworks appropriate for duration data. Considering presence of unobserved heterogeneity and frailty effects (dissimilar effects of disaster types) in the data, this research suggests that a Cox Proportional Hazard framework that allows a frailty (random effects) parameter is a better choice for modeling disaster event to governmental response time.

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