Book Review: Disaster Policy and Politics

Review of Disaster Policy & Politics: Emergency Management and Homeland Security, by Richard Sylves. 3rd edition, Sage Press, 2020

Reviewed by: Dr. Jeffrey Glick, Professor of Practice, Virginia Tech

Disaster Policy & Politics:  Emergency Management and Homeland Security by Dr. Richard Sylves is the third edition of this textbook and so testifies to its value for students and teachers alike.  The third edition is also a substantial expansion from the second edition with updated material throughout, to include the impacts from the election of Donald Trump and his administration.  In addition, a chapter on hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria has replaced the specific chapter on September 11 attacks that was in the second edition.  The policy and program impacts of September 11 are updated and now discussed in the appropriate sections throughout the book.  Finally, the broad sweep of book’s subject matter is discussed more generally in the main sections of the text, but amplified by “Tell Me More” detailed discussions and boxed text material focused on specific topics.  These features in addition to an excellent set of notes, glossary, extensive bibliography, and additional material available at the book’s website, make this an excellent choice for undergraduate and graduate students and their teachers.

As the reader can gather from the title, Dr. Sylves approaches emergency management and homeland security from the policy and politics standpoints.  Separate from one chapter on the “Globalization of Disasters,” the book has a United States perspective.  The book begins by providing the reader with a wide-ranging overview of disaster management in the United States.  These initial 38 pages include a discussion concerning the phases of and challenges to emergency management, the presidential declaration process, research concerning disasters, and emergency management as a profession.  The subsequent nine chapters of the book take up many of these topics, in addition to others, in more detail.

The short history of U.S. disaster policy appearing in chapter 3, informs the detailed discussion of presidential declaration policy in chapter 4 and how disaster declarations by presidents have not only shaped disaster response and recovery policy and actions throughout the nation’s history, but also impacted the political futures of the presidents themselves.  Furthermore, Sylves correctly points out that the advent of terrorism events and the preparedness for protection against them have, “…dramatically increased the range of presidential discretion in declaring events or circumstances as a disaster or potential disaster” and so enabled additional funds and resources to be allocated beyond the realm of more traditional natural and technological disasters.

The book also does an excellent job in providing a detailed discussion of the often complex roles and relationships between the different levels of government concerning disaster policy and management.  Dr. Sylves first discusses the traditional “bottom-up” approach to emergency management in the United States that emphasizes the role of local and state government, but correctly points out that this approach has been increasingly challenged by a larger role of the federal government in funding emergency management and related programs and tying this funding to specific planning structures, content and approaches (for example, the National Planning Frameworks and the National Incident Management System).  In addition, there is a chapter focusing on the role of the military in supporting civil government in prevention, preparedness, response and recovery for disasters, but now this also includes issues and programs under the umbrella of national security such as state homeland security grants, fusion centers and the expansion and more recently contraction of the Urban Area Security Initiative.

Dr. Sylves concludes with a new chapter on the effects and impacts of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which, by their shear severity and intensity, challenged the emergency management community, its policies and programs.  However, in the fast developing and evolving world of emergency management and homeland security, there are subjects now prominent that are not covered in the book.  One is the advent of Community Lifelines, subject-based categories of assistance in disaster response and recovery, which cut across specific governmental jurisdictions and functions (e.g., hazardous material, safety and security) in an attempt to better unify response and recovery.  Another subject that certainly needs to be included in the next edition of Disaster Policy and Politics is the impacts and opportunities of our evolving cyber-centric, data-driven nation and also the resulting need for cyber security.  This developing reality has far reaching impacts on both emergency management and homeland security at all levels of government and the private sector.  How this nation prepares for and is able to respond to developments in this new realm will impact every level and aspect of disaster policy and politics.




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