When President Bush declared Florida a disaster area this week in the wake of hurricane Wilma, the need was clear - a major hurricane inflicting significant damage to a heavily populated state.
But when it comes to smaller-scale floods, fires, tornadoes, or blizzards, what can prod a president to give the nod that paves the way for federal aid? Politics, say several researchers. It not only plays a sizable role, but it can also influence how much money flows, once a president issues a disaster declaration.
Their conclusion, reached after scrutinizing patterns in federal disaster spending over almost 45 years, is prompting renewed calls for a more objective approach to deciding which disasters merit federal declarations - and for clearer guidelines on how aid dollars get allotted.
The decisionmaking approach, they say, is likely to become increasingly important as disaster losses rise - driven largely by growing populations and wealth in places known to shake, burn, and face the drenching bluster of powerful storms.
The process will never be entirely free of politics, acknowledges Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"We shouldn't be that naïve," he says. "At the same time, you want to believe that someone in Louisiana is being treated as fairly as someone in West Virginia. It's a question of equity and fairness in a democracy."
The latest evidence for the growth in disaster losses - and for the potential imprint of politics - comes from a new county-by-county, year-by-year tally covering the period from 1960 to 2003. The information, culled from disparate sources within the federal government, counts events that caused more than $50,000 in damage. The data show losses rising at an ever-increasing rate. In 1960, losses were running at roughly $2.5 billion in 2004 dollars. For 2003, losses reached nearly $15 billion.
The trend is expected to continue, adds Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards Research Laboratory at the University of South Carolina at Columbia.
Last year each of the four hurricanes that struck Florida inflicted more than $5 billion in damage, notes Dr. Cutter, who built the database. This year President Bush has declared at least 35 major disasters. She and colleague Christopher Emrich reported their results in the Oct. 11 issue of EOS, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.
When she looked beyond the trends in losses, "what struck me was how ineffective certain states have been in getting presidential disaster declarations" over the past 40 years. For example, she continues, North Carolina and South Carolina have seen significant losses, yet have garnered relatively few disaster declarations, while North Dakota also has endured similarly high losses and has been "very good" at getting the declarations.
Some disparities may merely reflect a chronic set of events, each too small to merit US help, she explains. Yet politics also appears to play a role, she adds. And it cuts across administrations.
Studies published over the past three years suggest that presidential and congressional politics can influence aid, says Russell Sobel, an economist at West Virginia University.
For example, the presidents of the 1990s were more likely to declare disasters in key states during reelection campaigns than in states deemed less critical to the outcome, according to a study he helped to conduct.
That study also found that disaster spending tended to be higher in states whose lawmakers sat on committees overseeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). An analysis of the data, which took into account the severity of a disaster, estimated that politics drove nearly half the aid given during this period.
Moreover, the aid appears to have been used more as a carrot than as a stick. The study found little evidence that states in the "wrong" political column received less aid than they had sought.
In addition, Dr. Pielke and colleague Mary Downton looked at declared disasters from flooding from 1965 to 1997 and found similar trends in presidential disaster declarations.
FEMA gives a president guidance on whether a disaster merits a federal declaration, according to the Congressional Research Service. A FEMA spokeswoman notes that once a disaster is declared, applicants for aid still must meet several requirements to qualify.
Yet the system leaves the president and Congress with much discretion, Sobel adds, especially in smaller-scale disasters. "It's not an issue of good or bad people. It's a question of good or bad incentives," he concludes.
Several changes are needed to reduce the influence of politics, specialists note.
Dr. Sobel says FEMA should be responsible only for rebuilding infrastructure and providing security after a disaster. Other types of aid should come from the private sector and the Red Cross, he argues.
Others are less willing to trim FEMA's sails that tightly. Instead, they argue that the agency must be clearer about its aid criteria and why it rejects some applicants.
With all the gaps in information, "as a nation we have no idea what disasters cost us on an annual basis", Cutter says. "How can you derive effective public policy in the absence of that fundamental knowledge?"