By Cecilia Cress
Sigma Delta Pi and the Student Environmental Alliance invited Dr. Isabella Alcañiz for the virtual presentation “The Role of Race, Immigration, and Partisanship in Shaping Attitudes About Climate Disaster Assistance in the United States,” on Feb. 7.
Dr. Alcañiz is the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Center and an associate professor of the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. According to an email sent by President of Sigma Delta Pi senior Katherine Desrosiers, Dr. Alcañiz’s presentation “highlights the disproportional impact of governmental aid following natural disasters for marginalized communities.”
Dr. Alcañiz received a Licenciatura in international relations from the Universidad de Belgrano in Argentina and obtained her PhD from the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.
According to the University of Maryland Website, “Professor Alcañiz studies the politics of climate change, social inequality, disaster policy, and gender with a focus on Latin America and Latinx residents of the United States.” Her research has been published in Global Environmental Politics, the Latin American Research Review, and more.
Dr. Alcañiz began the presentation with data demonstrating the steady rise in cost of relief funds sent to affected areas because of natural disasters in the United States, such as wildfires, flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, and more.
“Tropical storms are increasing in number and impact. And thus, the cost, the assistance that [must] come afterwards, the relief, has also increased. We know that natural disasters are getting costlier and costlier,” she said.
Dr. Alcañiz’s main focus of the presentation was the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017, as well as Hurricane Harvey, which affected Texas and Louisiana in 2017, causing “catastrophic flooding.”
“[Hurricane Maria] devastated the island…the island went dark. The entire electric grid was lost for months…the number of casualties ended up being very high,” Dr. Alcañiz said.
Dr. Alcañiz’s main research question centered around the idea of public opinion: “Who does the public believe deserves disaster assistance?”
“Our motivation is that, when you think of how disaster aid is distributed…need is really the key factor. Whoever needs assistance should get assistance, whenever disaster strikes,” Dr. Alcañiz said. “But because climate change has increased the number of natural disasters, the effect is also to exacerbate competition for state disaster assistance. So, the question of public opinion of who gets help… may affect politicians’ actions.”
Dr. Alcañiz also spoke on the topic of politics in relation to disaster relief funds.
“What came out of the politics of disaster funds was the question of deservingness…the question of whether Puerto Ricans are more or less deserving because ‘well, are they citizens or not?’” Dr. Alcañiz said. “Puerto Ricans are indeed U.S. citizens.”
Dr. Alcañiz cited sources throughout the presentation that found citizens’ attitudes towards race and nationality shape who they think should get assistance, and that government remediation of environmental damages is often slower in lower income, minority communities.
“Natural disasters…[are] out of humans’ control. Even though people understand that, people will still hold responsible politicians after a disaster. So, the management of the disaster has electoral consequences,” Dr. Alcañiz said.
Dr. Alcañiz concluded that based on the surveys’ findings, citizens’ judgment of who deserves disaster assistance may be determined by the types of people who benefit from the assistance: their perceived citizenship status, race or ethnicity.
“If people perceive a victim of a natural disaster to be a U.S. citizen or a legal resident or an undocumented resident, that may shape how the respondent feels about the deservingness of that individual — how much help that person should receive from the government.”