Political Science The Politics of Natural Disasters
Daniel P. Aldrich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0063


People around the world are far more likely to encounter death or harm because of mudslides, collapsed buildings, and flooding than front-page issues such as terrorism, riots, or insurgency. In response to the range of natural hazards, researchers of the politics of disasters have studied how individuals, communities, and states prepare for, respond to, and recover from catastrophes and crises. While some have defined disasters as events that cause one hundred human deaths or injuries or $1 million in damage, they are more broadly understood as calamities that interrupt the routines of normal life and politics and cause widespread health and livelihood consequences. This working definition separates fender benders from citywide flooding, but moving to further distinguish between “natural” and “man-made” disasters becomes quite difficult as political and social choices magnify the effect of these events, especially in the contexts of increasing urbanization and anthropogenic climate change (see the Natural, Man-made, and Natural/Technological Disasters section for more on this theme). Due to the broad effects of floods, tsunami, hurricanes, famines, earthquakes, and fires, scholars from all disciplines have written a tremendous amount on the issue. Writings on disaster and recovery date back to the earliest recorded history, including the biblical story of a great deluge and the Sumerian narrative of Gilgamesh, and continue through the enlightenment with Voltaire’s writings on the November 1755 Portugal earthquake and tsunami that destroyed much of Lisbon. Political scientists, sociologists, geographers, anthropologists, economists, and historians have studied disaster recovery, best practices in disaster response, the role of the government in rebuilding, and so forth. This annotated bibliography illuminates representative examples of the interdisciplinary work in this vast academic subfield. Most of the work selected for inclusion comes from the end of the 20th century and the early 21st century, but it builds on the work of scholars such as Samuel Prince, who wrote about the 1917 Halifax harbor explosion three years later, and on mid-1950s and 1960s work sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences.

General Overviews

The texts in this section include some of the classics on issues of disaster outcomes, recovery, and community involvement. Dacy and Kunreuther 1969, a pioneering book, focuses on the 1964 Alaska earthquake. While intended to develop a comprehensive insurance system, this work sets out an economic model of recovery based on historical evidence. Some scholars have seen the process of rebuilding home life and businesses as ordered and predictable (Haas, et al. 1977), while other teams of scholars have pictured communities as inherently resilient based on their quantitative data analysis (Wright, et al. 1979). Rossi 1993 uses more than eight hundred interviews conducted after an earthquake in southern Italy to struggle with broader sociological debates about structure and agency, while Alexander 1993 attempts to bring together hard and social sciences into a single analytical framework. Peacock, et al. 2000 shows how disasters interact with race, gender, inequality, and ethnicity in Miami-Dade County, using integrated qualitative and quantitative methodologies, and Alesch, et al. 2009 uses experiences from a large number of disasters to provide local community leaders and decision makers with a guide to long-term recovery. Rodriguez, et al. 2006 brings together a series of subject matter experts on disaster-related topics from a variety of academic disciplines in a single volume.

  • Alesch, Daniel, Lucy Arendt, and James Holly. Managing for Long-Term Community Recovery in the Aftermath of Disaster. Fairfax, VA: Public Entity Risk Institute, 2009.

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    Written primarily for community leaders, local government officials, and mayors, this book brings together a wealth of findings on the recovery process, with a strong emphasis on bottom-up planning and citizen involvement.

  • Alexander, David. Natural Disasters. Rev. ed. London: UCL, 1993.

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    Interdisciplinary approach from sociological, natural science, and engineering perspectives on a wide variety of disasters, including fire, soil erosion, and volcanoes around the world.

  • Dacy, Douglas C., and Howard Kunreuther. The Economics of Natural Disasters: Implications for Federal Policy. New York: Free Press, 1969.

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    Identifies various factors, such as the amount of damage from the disaster and the amount of aid provided by the government, that influenced the pace of recovery following the Alaska earthquake.

  • Haas, J. Eugene, Robert W. Kates, and Martyn J. Bowden, eds. Reconstruction Following Disaster. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977.

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    Looks closely at both business and family life reconstruction, using data from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1964 Alaska earthquake, a 1972 flood in South Dakota, and the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua.

  • Peacock, Walter, Betty Morrow, and Hugh Gladwin, eds. Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, Gender, and the Sociology of Disasters. Miami, FL: International Hurricane Center, 2000.

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    This book uses race, gender, and ethnicity as core frameworks for understanding issues such as recovery outcomes, insurance settlements, and vulnerability, using qualitative and quantitative data.

  • Rodriguez, Havidán, Enrico L. Quarantelli, and Russell R. Dynes, eds. Handbook of Disaster Research. New York: Springer, 2006.

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    A comprehensive treatment of research in a variety of aspects of disasters and recovery, this interdisciplinary volume provides useful oversight of the field.

  • Rossi, Ino. Community Reconstruction after an Earthquake: Dialectical Sociology in Action. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.

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    With 821 interviews in forty-four villages, the book is an ambitious effort that uses the recovery of households, villages, and provinces to advance broader sociological theories.

  • Wright, James, Peter Rossi, Sonia Wright, and Eleanor Weber-Burdin. After the Clean-up: Long-Range Effects of Natural Disasters. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1979.

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    Uses 10,000 census tracts and 3,000 counties to understand the effects of floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes from 1960 to 1970.

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