How should political leaders behave when natural disaster strikes?

Natural disasters are in the news a lot. Given that we know that on average there are at least two disasters every single day, and that roughly every two weeks disasters involve major evacuations of over 100 000 people, it makes one wonder whether we really pay enough attention to them. The agencies whose core business is disaster response and recovery are busy and often too tired to focus on raising awareness. I have always been particularly intrigued by the way politicians (amongst which there are also genuine leaders) behave in the face of natural disasters. After all, politicians can make a significant impact on raising issues such as resilience to natural disasters. How much interest they have in doing so is a moot point. So, I took a good look at what they tend to do and if there’s a lesson in their behaviour that could make one major thing a priority: disaster resilience!

I would go as far as to argue that political culture is the single biggest obstacle facing Australia and many other nations worldwide right now in terms of our ability to respond to the ongoing disruptions caused by natural disasters and also of ensuring that economic losses are reigned in and recovery is not as protracted. Not the political system as such, but the actual culture surrounding the way political leaders behave.

A good politician will, in most cases, follow the Rockefeller creed: never let a good crisis go to waste. But the diet of PR is addictive. It is also a tricky one to control. When a natural disaster takes place, politicians caught napping pay a high price. Some are ridiculed for years. US President George Bush continues to be a source of satire years after Hurricane Katrina. While he suffered a slump in approval ratings, he is also remembered for his reluctance to set foot in New Orleans after the disaster, preferring, rather, to stay on vacation. This incident even became part of the television drama Treme. Others hear the anger from the public but still ignore it. The Malaysian president famously continued to play golf with President Obama while Malaysians were dealing with one of their largest floods in history. Equally impressive was the failure of the leadership in Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when Senior Gen. Than Shwe refused to allow international aid or media into the country in hope of hiding the devastation and lack of government action. And earlier this year, following the most intense cyclone in the southern Pacific, Cyclone Pam, the President of Vanuatu left his country to attend an overseas conference.

The way politicians behave when a natural disaster strikes is the subject of serious research. As Carnegie Mellon Prof John T Gasper points out, ‘a good performance during a disaster can lead to a significant boost in public approval and actually change outcomes at the ballot box’. So it is not surprising that many politicians actually do well following a natural disaster. Perhaps the most famous example is the former New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Mayor Giuliani’s leadership became a global benchmark for aspiring politicians. Another example is Chris Christy, Republican Governor of New Jersey, who famously ignored the political divide and embraced a good relationship with Democrat President Obama, and showed strong leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

In Australia, we’ve seen pollies learn fast from the mistakes of others. Following the south east Queensland floods in 2011, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh gave an emotional speech in which she fought back tears. Every political leader in the country seems to have jumped on that and every disaster that has affected Australia since has been consistent in one way: a quick reaction by political leaders delivering emotion laden speeches to the public. It is now customary for Australian political leaders to get into it before the actual disaster is over. In April this year NSW Premier Mike Baird was on television urging people to head home to avoid being caught in the storm which was to hit Sydney. Premier Baird was active on social media (Twitter) ensuring his strongest possible presence.

The world over, politicians have either done really well, really badly or fallen somewhere in between. Some politicians lose serious political capital after a natural disaster. For instance, Kathleen Blanco, the Democrat Governor of Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit, saw her 70% approval rating before the event fall to 31% within several months. In Japan, Japan’s Prime Minster Naoto Kan resigned only five months after the devastating Fukushima disaster in March 2011, due to pressure which was largely based on criticism of his poor handling of the disaster. ,. Others, however, seem to have learnt some lessons and are far more responsive. Just a few days ago Indonesian President Joko Widodo decided to cut short his visit to the USA and return home to deal with massive forest fires which were causing a major health crisis in his country.

Regardless, whatever their choices have been, these leader have influenced (and continue to influence) what people think of resilience. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that to a significant portion of people, the concept of resilience is only as clear as what their political leaders manage to put out in the simplest of terms. And that is where things become convoluted. Resilience is a very complicated thing and while it can be expressed in a slogan of sorts, real resilience can’t be built unless people grasp the essential fact that we are dealing with a complex problem. Almost everyone can memorise the most famous scientific formula in the words penned by Albert Einstein; E=MC2, but directly proportionately, not too many can actually explain it.

Basically I think that when politicians seek to gain political capital through something which may or may not be a legitimate target for them, we are left unsure whether it is good for the public, especially in relation to resilience. Political entrepreneurialism, plain populism or opportunisms? Hard to tell from a distance, but when better examined one question emerges: is leadership by politicians translating into resilient outcomes measured by better systems, readiness, and changed behaviour by the public? Or, is it simply good politicking and great television?


Note by the author (Jelenko Dragisic):  

The above article is part of my ongoing private research looking at the role of political leadership in developing disaster resilience.

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