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Playing Politics with Natural Disaster

Hurricane Agnes, the 1972 Election, and the Origins of FEMA

Hurricane Agnes struck the United States in June of 1972 months before a pivotal American election and at the dawn of the period of deindustrialization across the northeastern United States. The response by local, state, and national officials had long term consequences for all Americans. President Richard Nixon used the tragedy for political gain by delivering a generous relief package to the key states of New York and Pennsylvania in a scheme to win over voters. After his landslide reelection in 1972, Richard Nixon cut benefits for disaster victims and then passed legislation to push responsibility for disaster preparation and mitigation unto the states and localities. This effort led to the rise of emergency management and inspired the development of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

With a particular focus on events in New York and Pennsylvania, Timothy W. Kneeland narrates how local, state, and federal authorities responded to the immediate crisis and managed the long-term recovery from Ages. The impact of Agnes was horrific, billions of dollars in damage from Florida to New York, and 122 left dead and tens of thousands homeless. In the aftermath of the havoc wreaked by the storm, local officials and leaders directed disaster relief funds to rebuild their shattered cities and reshaped future disaster policies.

Playing Politics with Natural Disaster explains how the political decisions by local, state, and federal officials shaped state and national disaster policy and continues to hamper preparedness and response to this day.

Author Information

Timothy W. Kneeland is Professor and Chair of History and Political Science at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, and the author of several other books, including Pushbutton Psychiatry, Democrats and Republicans on Social Issues, and The Buffalo Blizzard of 1977. Follow him on Twitter @CPH_Naz


Thomas Birkland, North Carolina State University, author of After Disaster and Lessons of Disaster:

"This outstanding book shows that debates over the nature of disaster relief and the role of the federal government are not new. Kneeland's painstaking retelling of the effects of Hurricane Agnes is a significant contribution to understanding how disasters can yield policy changes."

Patrick Roberts, Associate Professor at the Center for Public Administration and Policy, in the School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech Author of Disasters and the American State:

"Playing Politics with Natural Disaster shows why Hurricane Agnes was a turning point from an era of ad hoc disaster response to an increasingly professionalized and bureaucratized endeavor."

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