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Disasters and the American State: How Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Public Prepare for the Unexpected, Patrick S. Roberts

Reviewed by Christopher Ansell



This book develops three intertwining themes about the development of what Patrick S. Roberts calls the “disaster state.” The first theme traces the expansion of federal disaster response as it has evolved from ad hoc relief funding prior to the New Deal to our contemporary president-centered and bureaucratized response system. The second theme explores the uneasy coexistence of two missions for the disaster state—civil defense or homeland security on the one hand and natural disaster response on the other. The third theme examines the tortured rise of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and how it functions in a politicized federal system. Roberts’ social constructivist perspective ties the three themes together, offering a unique historical perspective on the rise of the disaster state.

The book begins with a description of the federal response to the 1927 Mississippi floods, an important episode in the transition from a Congress-centered to a president-centered disaster system. In response to that massive flood, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to serve as the federal response czar. State and local governments welcomed the aid, and Hoover’s success later propelled him to the presidency. Roberts contrasts this outcome with the far less successful response to Hurricane Katrina nearly

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