It makes more economic sense to prepare for disaster in advance than it does to stage heroic relief efforts after calamity strikes. For reasons rooted in politics and emotion, the law does exactly the opposite. Ad hoc relief, expensive and spontaneous, dominates disaster law and policy.
The President’s unilateral power to declare a federal disaster under the Stafford Act invites political manipulation. To test whether presidential disaster declarations track the four-year presidential electoral cycle, this paper draws upon Fourier analysis and digital signal processing to devise a generalized polynomial and multi-sinusoidal model for detecting cyclical patterns.
Presidential disaster declarations since 1953 reveal not one but two forms of periodicity. As expected, a “short wave” of four years shows how disaster declarations track the presidential election cycle. The effect is most pronounced not in election years (when declarations do spike), but in years immediately following a presidential election (when declarations dramatically plummet). Even more surprisingly, the record suggests that presidential disaster declarations also follow a “long wave,” whose frequency appears to be 44 years.