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News NYT Opinion: What Trump Doesn't Get About Disasters

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How we define a calamity determines how we plan for and respond to them. Or not.
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​Rose Wong

By Scott Gabriel Knowles
Professor Knowles studies public policy concerning risk and disaster.

Originally Published by The New York Times

Sept. 13, 2018

PHILADELPHIA — On Thursday morning, as the Carolinas braced for the winds and water of Hurricane Florence, President Trump was busy responding to the storm that devastated Puerto Rico last year.

Mr. Trump seems incensed that people keep insisting on an accurate death count from Hurricane Maria. A recent study by researchers at George Washington University found that 2,975 more deaths than expected occurred in the aftermath of the storm. Sixty-four deaths were initially reported.

But the president was not having it. “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Mr. Trump asserted on Twitter. “When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000.”

To the president, the increased figure was the result of a conspiracy by Democrats “to make me look as bad as possible,” as he argued in a subsequent tweet.

Aside from the obvious paranoia these utterances betray, they also provide an opportunity, as the nation copes with a seeming onslaught of disasters from wildfires in the West to floods in the Midwest and East, to look at our definition of “disaster.” Mr. Trump seems to define it as an event at a specific moment. If you died later because of the long-term effects of a hurricane, for instance, then to his way of thinking, your death should not be counted in the toll.

I’m glad he gave an honest account of his thinking about the boundaries of disaster, because how we count these deaths and measure the economic impact of calamities shapes the way we budget for future ones. It also determines how credit or blame is assigned to elected officials charged with preparing for and managing disasters.

Defining a disaster as an “event” has a history extending to the 1960s when federal funds were spent to model the social impact of a nuclear attack. To do this, Civil Defense officials commissioned studies of proxies of an attack, like earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes, all disasters that affect multiple systems with limited warning. They wanted to understand the immediate post-attack consequences — would society survive, or would people panic and society quickly descend into chaos? The focus was on the event itself, the nuclear blast. What led up to it and what its long-term effects would be irrelevant.

Social science disaster research was born from this funding. Over the decades, it evolved into a multidisciplinary endeavor that has told us a lot about human behavior in disasters. (And it’s not what those Civil Defense officials in the 1960s expected. People don’t panic. They are resilient. They help one another.)

By the 1990s there was an emerging consensus that the historical background and long-term aftereffects of disasters were just as important, if not more so than the event itself because a disaster is really an interconnected chain of occurrences.

We will never understand why some people are vulnerable and others aren’t if the focus is only on a disaster as an event. Nor will we comprehend why some communities recover quickly while others languish, nor grasp the debilitating consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder. So, too, we will be unable to comprehend the burden of care for future generations, or past victims. Event thinking is amnesiac; worse, it inhibits planning for the disasters to come.

But if one’s interest is in playing down the impact of a disaster, then event thinking is the ticket. You may avoid learning anything significant about the causes and consequences of what happened, but you can get back to the business of building, even if it is in dangerous places.

The president’s disaster logic tells us that firefighters who are now sick after responding to the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks are not victims and that soldiers suffering PTSD should not be counted among the casualties of war. Nothing matters unless it happened in the event. If you didn’t die then and there, you don’t count.

The president’s failure of imagination is ours if we continue to shortchange the Federal Emergency Management Agency and limit its activities mostly to disaster response. Or ignore the deterioration of important infrastructures like dams and levees. Or assume that everyone can cope with a disaster regardless of age or income. Research shows that in these cases, long-term thinking and planning can save lives and dollars.

Event thinking is cheaper, and it relieves us of the moral burdens of protecting the commons. But it is counterproductive. What we should be doing is building a culture of long-term preparedness, based in scientific reality.

The clear counterpoint is to acknowledge that a disaster is a process that reveals our values as a society. A disaster’s beginning and end might be obscure, but that doesn’t excuse us from figuring out the causes and true costs.

Surely our thinking about disaster should be as complex as the societies they disrupt. We need to understand that disaster is slow.

Scott Gabriel Knowles is a history professor at Drexel University and an affiliate of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion).

A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 14, 2018, on Page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: What Trump Misses About Hurricanes. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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What Trump Doesn’t Get About Disasters: How we define a calamity determines how we plan for and respond to them. Or not. By DRC Affiliate Faculty Scott Gabriel Knowles.
What Trump Doesn’t Get About Disasters: How we define a calamity determines how we plan for and respond to them. Or not. By DRC Affiliate Faculty Scott Gabriel Knowles.
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