The Politics of Disaster - Part I: The Snow and the Fury

The effects of natural disasters are multi-faceted and often unanticipated. One way that disasters can affect communities is through altering the political climate. Today, we’re featuring part one a semi-regular series where we explore instances of appointed officials who lost their positions in large part because of their response (or lack of response) to major natural disasters.


In January 1979, Chicago experienced one of its worst snowstorms on record when 16.5 inches fell on the City in just one day. The snow impacted roads, froze tracks, and impeded movement throughout the City. The effect wasn’t just felt for a few days; a great deal of snow remained un-removed for multiple weeks after the storm hit.


The response dragged on long enough that the response and leadership from the Mayor was still fresh in people’s minds during the February 27th primary. Mayor Bilandic was defeated, in no small part because of significant missteps in the City’s response to the disaster. Many of the mayor’s statements were revealed by investigative journalists to be baseless or flat out untrue. He overstated the City’s progress in response and recovery from the storm on several occasions. Additionally the Mayor was blamed for transportation woes that included allegations of public transportation skipping stops in predominately minority neighborhoods, vandalization of cars that were moved off of roadways in order for them to be cleared, and the closure of the airport. The incident also brought to light the City’s inadequate plans to handle severe weather. As reporters discovered during the response, the existing emergency snow removal plan was inadequate and not at all useful during the disaster.


Mayor Bilandic is often used as an example to other politicians following major natural disasters: your message must be honest and direct, response should be swift, and no group or neighborhood should be ignored. Mayor Bilandic, by many accounts, was in a good position to be re-elected before the storm hit. With a poor response and mixed and often downright wrong messages following the storm, he was narrowly defeated in the primary elections held while residents were still recovering.


In Part II, we’ll discuss Mayor Nickels of Seattle and the December 2008 winter storm that cost him his bid for re-election.



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