Cornell University Press Authors' blogs

Timothy W. Kneeland on Politics and Natural Disaster

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In this Q&A we ask author Timothy W. Kneeland three questions about his new book, Playing Politics with Natural Disaster: Hurricane Agnes, the 1972 Election, and the Origins of FEMA, and his research on state and national natural disaster policy.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

Joe Sartori was the new City Manager of Elmira, New York who, in the absence of data from the weather service, and against the advice of his subordinates, ordered the evacuation of several areas close by the river on Thursday, June 22, 1972. His bold action, which could have cost him his job, saved countless lives as the Chemung River flooded Elmira early the next morning. Sartori stands in sharp contrast to many other leaders along the Susquehanna River basin who were concerned about crying wolf and suffering the wrath of the electorate.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

Disasters are not random Acts of God but ultimately the result of human action and public policies that put people in harm’s way. Local authorities have a greater responsibility than the President of the United States in taking action to save lives and property, but they are frequently the least prepared. If readers take any message away from the book is that they need to agents of change in their local communities long before disaster looms.   

3. How do you wish you could change the field of history?

I wish that historians could be more attentive to the role of local history. Although there is a subfield of microhistory that attends local histories, too often historians ignore how local circumstances shape how people encounter national agendas, ideas, or movements. Much of what I write about in this book is how people living in small cities responded to national trends like the decline in trust in government, the rise of mass media and attack dog journalism, and the War in Vietnam.

*Featured photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash.

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 PsychiatryToday’s Social Issues, and Buffalo Blizzard of 1977.

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