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.




Book Review: Handbook of Disaster Research

Book Review: Handbook of Disaster Research (2nd Edition). Rodríguez, H., Trainor, J. & Donner, W. (Eds.) (2018). Handbook of Disaster Research (2nd Edition). Springer International Publishing AG. 619 pp. $349.99 (hardcover). . Reviewed by Laura L. Olson, PhD.

Note: Since this is an unusually large and important book, and this review is 4 pages long, please click here to see the full review: Handbook of Disaster Research


Book Review: The Ostrich Paradox; Why We Underprepare for Disasters.

The Ostrich Paradox; Why We Underprepare for Disasters. By Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther.Paperback:132 pages; Publisher:Wharton Digital Press (February 7, 2017)  ; ISBN-10:1613630808 and ISBN-13:978-1613630808. ($12.18) Available on Amazon at:

Reviewed by Edward A. Thomas Esq., President of the Natural Hazards Mitigation Association.

This is a short, concise and extremely well written book which sets out a simple and easy to understand methodology of evaluating actions, policies and procedures so as to determine if they will actually work so as to provide Disaster Risk Reduction. The book is published by the Wharton School and authored by two exceptionally qualified Professors from Wharton, who have produces a number of equally excellent articles and books in the past relating to Disaster Risk Reduction.

The authors begin by clarifying that as they use the “Ostrich Paradox” as a metaphor, it does not deal with the characterization of the Ostrich as a silly creature who hides its head in the sand to escape problems. Rather they wish us to consider the Ostrich as a wily “escape artist” who uses speed and other attributes to make up for its inability to fly. So too they suggest we humans mist make up for our severe cognitive biases to overcome the disasters of the future.

The book is broken into two major parts:

Part 1 provides an extraordinarily concise and easily understood explanation of why the human mind has such a difficult time preparing for low probability but high consequence events. Those mental limitations are described as: a) the Myopia Bias; b) the Amnesia Bias; c) the Optimism Bias; d) the Inertia Bias; e) the Simplification Bias; and f) the Herding Bias. All these mental human limitations will be all too familiar in concept if not by the nomenclature provided in the book to those of us who have attempted to craft and sell programs designed to build more safely today to avoid disasters in the future. The limitations are presented in a manner which may well leave the reader quite disheartened as to the possibility of ever achieving any sort of long term solution to our growing toll of disaster losses caused by the quite foreseeable processes of nature.

However, in Part II the authors propose a methodology of evaluating societal actions for dealing with disaster losses: the conduct of a “Behavioral Risk Audit.” The audit would consist of an analysis of the six major human mental biased identified in Part I; reviewing the impact of that bias on the issue in question, including specific manifestation of that bias in the real world and then developing a remedy for the bias and the manifestation of the bias. The authors provide a specific example of such an audit in a review of the problem of reducing future flood losses.

In addition the authors provide principles for dealing with the many threats which will inevitably increase disasters of the future including climate change, and sea level rise. The principles are splendid and will work if implemented: a) commit to long term protective planning as a major priority;

  1. b) commit to policies that discourage individual and community actions that increase exposure to long term risks;
  2. c) create policies that consider our human mental biases which inhibit adoption of protective measures and
  3. d) Commit to policies which address problems equitably.

The authors also provide us with specific strategies for better Disaster Risk Reduction decision-making, all familiar to most of us: enforcing better standards including building codes and zoning, tax incentives, buyouts for relocating homes for hazardous locations. The book also notes an often overlooked aspect of Disaster Risk Reduction: the problem of affordability. The author’s solution is a system of means tested subsidies.

This book is a must read for its truly concise and brilliant explanation of why it is just so darn difficult to persuade our fellow humans to invest in solutions to solve low probability, high consequence events. Its method of analyzing solutions to those human mental biases, the conduct of a risk audit, is interesting and thought provoking.

However, the book’s proposed solutions do seem require further explanation in two ways:

  1. the solutions involve more regulation, more financial expenditure for relocation and insurance subsidy at a time when regulation and federal expenditures are in disfavor; and
  2. seem to miss the fundamental economic point of our Ostrich Paradox induced failure to properly prepare for low probability, high consequence disasters. I believe that our current systems reward risky behavior and permit those who benefit from that behavior to externalize those costs of risky behavior on to others in society, while pocketing the unjustly acquired fruits of that risky behavior. I suggest we need to recognize that fundamental change is needed in our community development system, especially involving the appropriated and unappropriated expenditure of federal funds so that we implement solutions based on the fundamental principles of inducing human behavior change: good conduct is rewarded; bad [risky] conduct is discouraged. For further explanation of this concept please see, e.g.: a) Natural Hazard Disaster Risk Reduction as an Element of Resilience: Considerations about Insurance and Litigation by Edward A. Thomas, Esq. (2016) In Linkov, I., & Florin, M.-V. (Eds.), IRGC Resource Guide on Resilience. Available at: and also b) Reforming Federal support for Risky Business, Authors: David Conrad and Edward A. Thomas Esq., in 15 Ways to Rethink the Federal Budget, Edited by Greenstone, Harris, Li, Looney and Pastashnik, Brookings Institute Hamilton Project, 2013. Located at:

Summary Review: All-in-all an absolutely must read for all who are trying to achieve Disaster Risk Reduction.


Book Review: Consuming Catastrophe

Consuming Catastrophe; Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster, by Timothy Recuber. Temple University Press. Paperback price: $28.95

Reviewer: Jono Anzalone, Vice President of International Services with the American Red Cross. Prior to assuming that position he has been a volunteer and paid staff member of the Red Cross since 1995.

Consuming Catastrophe is a must read for emergency managers and those interested in the disaster space.  Recuber provides insight into the connectivity between media and disaster which is a topic that anyone working in the emergency management space should better understand, especially in today’s environment where phenomena such as “fake news” are drivers in how disaster responses are being covered. As an emergency management practitioner I strongly recommend Recuber’s chapter on “The Limits of Empathy” which highlights the disturbing trends in “disaster tourism” and changing perceptions and reactions of the public to disasters.

Recuber look at disaster not through an emergency mangers lens, but rather sociological provides new insight into how media is playing a key role in influence public opinion and behavior, of which all are not positive.  Influencing the empathetic compass of the public, the media’s role in covering disasters also is emoting fear and impacting levels of trust which is closely examined by Recuber.

With the growth of online media, Recuber also reveals the changing dynamics in how the public are reacting to disasters, highlighting the risks associated with the public now witnessing the effects of disaster though Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other medium, but not necessarily mobilization the support that once was traditional (volunteering time or donating funds).  An eye opening read on the continued desire for media sensationalism, which may come at the expense of those impacted by disaster.

Book Review: “Narratives of Crisis; Telling Stories of Ruin and Renewal”

Review of Narratives Of Crisis: Telling Stories Of Ruin And Renewal, by Matthew W. Seeger and Timothy L. Sellnow. Publisher : Stanford Business Books.ISBN: 9780804788922 (cloth); ISBN 9780804799515 (pbk); ISBN9780804799522 (e-book); 216 pps; from $29.95; June 2016.

Reviewed by NancyKay Sullivan Wessman, who is the author of Katrina, Mississippi: Voices From Ground Zero (Triton 2015)

Songwriter-singer Fred Neil and performer Harry Nilsson shared the message in 1966 and 1969: “Everybody’s talking at me. I don’t hear a word they’re saying. Only the echoes of my mind.” Their form of storytelling reflects every human’s method of trying to make sense of and understand daily life, especially crisis.

In Narratives Of Crisis: Telling Stories Of Ruin And Renewal, communications researchers Matthew Seeger and Timothy Sellnow focus on their fascination of crises as transformational, “powerful forces of change.” They particularly emphasize how and why words-become-stories before, during, and after a crisis event help individuals, organizations, and communities shape ensuing change. They identify many different disasters and what they call “resulting consequences. . . the social, political, economic, demographic, physical, and technological changes that follow a crisis.”

Heavy on theory, definitions, exploration of events over time as “deeply disruptive and abnormal,” the authors discuss narratives of blame, renewal, victims and heroes, and memorial tributes. Different storytellers approach the narrative from their own perspective and for their own reasons, and the resulting stories interact or compete, “answering questions focused on three general categories: evidence, intent, and responsibility,” they affirm.

The book’s first four chapters explain “narratives of crises,” expose “humans as storytellers,” reveal “how stories disrupt our sense of meaning,” and discuss how accounts of disaster events simply relate what happened. Reading the pages through to Chapter 10, “How Narratives of Crisis Compete and Converge,” seemed plodding and repetitive, but the authors finally present convergence – the” development of a coherent, unifying story that subsumes many other stories, themes, perspectives, and pieces of information.” The life-length of a narrative increases the prospect that associated stories will persist and that the converged narrative will endure to inform, reveal lessons learned, and enable individuals and communities to  protect themselves from known risks. Stories “shape understanding and action.”

Through relating stories of many news-worthy crises – the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and Super Storm Sandy, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the sinking of Titanic, nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the Fukushima Daiichi crisis after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina – Seeger and Sellnow show how communications fill the void in often conflicting progressions to become narratives that instigate change and shape beliefs, actions, and culture. They insist that “crisis narratives must be understood as stories with limitations inherent in the narrator and the storytelling form,” and that the change becomes the consequence – often in socially-, politically-, economically-, demographically-, and technologically-visible ways.

On page two, the authors erroneously had Hurricane Katrina slam into New Orleans on August 27, 2005, and on page 37, they mistakenly associate the same storm with 2006. Correctly, Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast at Bay Saint Louis – Waveland on August 29, 2005.

Despite that error of fact, the book – particularly in the less academic and more practically-parsed later chapters – can help emergency management professionals understand both why and how storytelling can help make sense of crises and then lead individuals, organizations, and communities to recognize the need for and take action for better preparedness and response. As Seeger and Sellnow conclude, narratives can and do “promote the ethics of resilience, cooperation, and, ultimately, renewal.”


Book Review: The Consequences of Disasters: Demographic, Planning, and Policy Implications

Review of The Consequences of Disasters: Demographic, Planning, and Policy Implications, by James, Helen and Douglas Paton. Charles C Thomas, Publisher Ltd, Springfield, IL, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-398-09097-5 (paper); ISBN 978-0-398-09098 (e-book); 414 pp.; $ 62.95

Reviewed by Donald Watson, who is the author of Design for Flooding: Resilience to Climate Change (Wiley 2011)

This book is a collection of short chapters and case studies, originating from an international conference at Australian National University September 2013. The editors state their intention to connect scholarship with policymaking by documenting lessons from disaster response and recovery… “to make a contribution to fostering greater knowledge of how natural disasters impact on people, their livelihoods, health, family dynamics, migration patterns, coping capacities, and evolving models of social capital as survivors recovery.” [p. 7]

The 26 contributors to this volume support this intention by showing the value of enlarging disaster recovery from a sole focus on physical rebuilding, giving equal and prime focus to social and cultural recovery.

The chapters of the book provide data on a range of natural disasters, including earthquake, tsunami, and flood. The emphasis is upon cross-cultural factors, supported by a key finding that, “social capital and leadership…[are] the most effective elements to mobilize collection actions to promote recovery after a disaster.” [p. 9]

Ch. 3 “Climate-Change Resilience, Poverty Reduction, and Disaster Risk Management” by Mark Pelling and Daanish Mustafa offer ten “resilience pathways” for disaster management, including: Diversity, Governance, Flexibility, Localism, Preparedness, Equity, Social Capital, Non-linearity (aiming to improve not only to replace), Process learning, Co-responsibility. The chapter notes that hazard mitigation can often be found as part of ongoing local projects, but that some conventional development practices undermine livelihoods and environmental integrity, and thus increase risk.

The one U.S. example in the volume is Chapter 4 by Susan L. Cutter, “Demographic Change after Hurricane Katrina: A Tale of Two Places,” which documents the population decline and demographic changes after Katrina.

Chapter 5 “Long-term Community Recovery: Lessons from Earthquake and Typhoon Experiences in Taiwan,” by Douglas Paton, Li-Ju Jang, and Li-Wen Liu describe the great range of social and cultural values at play in disaster recovery. They offer a clear process to measure social capital as the sum of “community consciousness, community trust, community participation, and organizational networks.” [p.77]

Chapter 5 authors also define a “strengths-based approach” to community recovery, to encouraged residents to understand their own communities, to enable community members to take active roles in obtaining resources and to manage the relevant local public affairs. That is, as reported widely in the literature, both community engagement and governance prove to be necessary ingredients to community resilience.

Chapter 10 “The Discourse of Disasters in Philippine Festivals,” (Philippines) by Cecilia S. De La Paz and Chapter 11 “Saving Folk Performing Arts for the Future” (Japan) by Ken Miichi document how historical festivals and improvising upon oral and performance traditions can assist in community recovery.

The publisher’s website states that, “This book provides many innovative insights which will be of value to disaster policy experts, practitioners in the humanitarian field, civil society and government sectors and researchers engaged in disaster recovery and reconstruction practice and research.”

The book does deliver on this claim. The authors of the assembled case studies make valuable contributions in documenting social and cultural lessons from the tragedy of natural disasters.