What Defines A Disaster?

There was a post on the Heritage blog showing the number of FEMA disaster declarations per year from 1953 to 2011 and there is a curious increase starting in 1996 that needs to be explored.

I went to the FEMA website and found the same data that was presented on the Heritage blog so I’m convinced this data is valid.  Not that I would expect a reputable site like The Heritage to falsify data but I go by the rule “Trust but Verify” so this is standard practice for me.

Before we get into the details, it will help to understand how FEMA defines Major Disaster, Emergency and Fire Management Assistance so from the FEMA website:  

Major Disaster – Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Ace, any natural catastrophe (including any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, wind-driven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm or drought) or, regardless of cause, any fire, flood or explosion in any part of the United States that, in the determination of the President, causes damage of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant major disaster assistance under the Stafford Act to supplement the efforts and available resources of States, local governments and disaster relief organization in alleviating the damage, loss, hardship or suffering caused thereby.

Emergency – Any incident, whether natural or manmade, that requires responsive action to protect life or property.  Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, an emergency means any occasion or instance for which, in the determination of the President, Federal assistance is needed to supplement State and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States.

Fire Management Assistance Program – Fire Management Assistance is available to States, local and tribal governments, for the mitigation, management, and control of fires on publicly or privately owned forests or grasslands, which threaten such destruction as would constitute a major disaster.

The purpose of the Heritage piece was to highlight the high number of declarations coming from the Obama administration in 2011 and I am not here to refute that claim but I find it more troubling that starting around 1996 (when Clinton was President) we saw a step function increase in number of declarations as compared with the historical averages.  While I like to bash Clinton and Obama, you’ll notice that Bush continued this trend during his two terms as president so what happened in the mid 90’s to cause this increase?

The Anthropogenic Global Warming cult likes to say that increases in CO2 will lead to more storms and hurricanes and if you are a member of this cult you probably already snapped to that as the major cause.  Unfortunately the data don’t support that theory as you’ll see soon.  Let’s look at some of the major contributors to disasters in the United States.

Was there an increase in hurricanes making landfall in the US during the last 15 years?  Nope.

What about Tornadoes?  Did the US see an increased amount of these deadly and damaging storms?  Nope.

It must be floods then, right?  Nope.

I’ve heard a lot about Earthquakes in the news lately so maybe we’ve seen an uptick in damage caused by these natural catastrophes.  Nope.  From the USGS website (emphasis mine):

“We continue to be asked by many people throughout the world if earthquakes are on the increase. Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant.”

“A partial explanation may lie in the fact that in the last twenty years, we have definitely had an increase in the number of earthquakes we have been able to locate each year. This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications. In 1931, there were about 350 stations operating in the world; today, there are more than 8,000 stations and the data now comes in rapidly from these stations by electronic mail, internet and satellite. This increase in the number of stations and the more timely receipt of data has allowed us and other seismological centers to locate earthquakes more rapidly and to locate many small earthquakes which were undetected in earlier years. The NEIC now locates about 20,000 earthquakes each year or approximately 50 per day. Also, because of the improvements in communications and the increased interest in the environment and natural disasters, the public now learns about more earthquakes.”

What about wildfires?  From the Heritage graph, that was a big component of the increase so maybe that is the reason.  Well, yes!  The average fire SIZE has increased (not the frequency) so that has led to more destruction.

The total area damaged by wildfires has increased and now we must ask why that has happened over the past 15 years.  The website that provided the chart above offers the following explanation:

“One statistic I concentrate on is the average size of fires, not so much the number of fires or the total acres burned each year, two stats that the mainstream media harps on. The average size is affected not only by the weather, but also by the fuel condition and age, how many fires were burning at the same time, the short-term availability of firefighting resources, the skill and efficiency of the firefighting effort, strategy used on fires, and the number of firefighting resources on the payroll of the firefighting agencies.”

The website Wildfiretoday has another post with more explanation on why these fires are getting larger:

“Fire suppression for the last 100 years is catching up with us. Preventing naturally occurring fires to routinely reduce the fuel loads increases the amount of fuel, and the continuity of it, available when a fire starts. Fires burn more intensely and with more resistance to control.”

Climate change. There is no doubt that temperatures in the last few decades have been higher that they were before this period. We can debate how this may have affected wildland fires. Many areas have had extended droughts, causing die back of brush and shrubs. Trees are stressed, making them more susceptible to insects and other pests. Do these higher temperatures have a direct effect on fire behavior on an hour by hour basis?”

The author brings up a great point that we are so hyper sensitive to fire suppression that we’ve prevented naturally occurring, smaller fires to destroy some of the fuel that is consumed in later fires.  While I’m not a member of the AGW cult, there has been an increase of temperatures in the last 20 years when compared with temperatures of the decades prior that could also contribute to increased wildfires so I agree with the author here too.

So the only disaster that has increased in the past 15 years has been due to wildfires but the other declaration bars (Major Disaster and Emergency) from the Heritage graph have also increased from prior years and the data doesn’t support a justification for that.  Why did the Federal Government issue more disaster declarations over the past 15 years?

Over the past couple of decades we have seen Liberal ideals, which affirm the Government’s role in bailing out its citizens from all manners of hardship, assimilated into American orthodoxy.   What started out as a safety net has turned into an entitlement frenzy.  When the government spends over 90% of all tax revenues on Social Security, Welfare, Medicare, Medicaid and Unemployment Insurance, it is not difficult to believe that our definition of “Emergency” has gone soft.

The increase in tax payer dollars to fund disaster relief is not the problem but just one more symptom of America’s slow slide into Euro socialism.  It must stop now!

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4 Responses to What Defines A Disaster?

  1. Bob Mack says:

    Nice piece of investigation…that first chart is pretty telling.

  2. DueToFlooding says:

    Your flood chart only goes to the year 2000.. Granted, when you posted this it probably was all you could get, but this is more appropriate: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/hic/flood_stats/damages_graph.jpg

  3. DueToFlooding says:

    Meant to add, the 2005 flood damage is in hand with Bush’s highest number of FEMA declarations.. and the Gulf Oil Spill.. and all the other disasters… the last decade has, in lamen terms, sucked.

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