There was a time when a “state of emergency” (SOE) meant something. Nuclear war. Major natural disaster. Riots. Devastation on a grand scale. Dogs and cats sleeping together, that sort of thing. But not any more, at least in modern America. Election years seem especially prone to SOE’s and sober pronouncements by Those In Power that while the situation is dire, under their beneficent leadership, It Will All Be Ok 😛 . Politicians running for higher office love them – they get to “show leadership”. But snark aside, what are some of the factors here?
Declaring SOE in advance of a potential disaster has become a normal way of doing business. It supposedly allows preparations for the disaster. If the event actually happens, then a “disaster declaration” is made triggering further actions. In one sense I get it, because the normal workings of bureaucracy have become so slow, convoluted, and constrained, that getting things done in a timely manner (or even at all, given the hyper-partisanship rampant in America these days) is difficult, and a streamlined process for preparing and ordering preparations is perhaps needed. But there are also down sides. For one thing, “emergencies” become the normal way of doing business. In most states, an SOE allows the Governor to suspend the normal budgeting and contracting process, and this encourages abuses. It allows order preventing Price Gouging (which is a good thing, but I guess is OK the rest of the year, given Disney prices!). It also often has civil rights implications with respect to Police powers and private property, something the US already has problems with.
Another issue is that over time it causes disaster fatigue – most of these “disasters” are ultimately localized events, or events where there are widely scattered impacts but, in the great scheme of things, while they do hurt those immediately impacted, the events are really not that bad from a wider perspective. I worry that people don’t react with the urgency they should in cases where there really is a threat, when every inconvenience is treated as an “emergency”.
The economic impacts of SOE, watches, warnings, and disaster declarations go far beyond government operations. We are likely at a point where we spend more on preparing and anticipating disaster than if we did nothing except protect lives or when something truly catastrophic was imminent, and cleaned up later. Many private firms are forced (either for the avoidance of liability, or other reasons) to follow the status of Government, which can be highly disruptive. A major factor here is the insurance industry. Now that Alberto is a “named storm,” many onerous insurance restrictions kick in such as restrictions in writing new policies, much higher deductibles, and so forth. While linking insurance provisions to disaster response may seem to make sense at first cut, in fact it has had a significantly negative impact on consumers.
On the surface, it may seem that declaring an SOE for an incoming storm makes sense, but as with so much in the area of disaster planning, response, and mitigation, it’s a lot more complicated than it seems.