Energy inequality and clientelism in the wake of disasters: From colorblind to affirmative power restoration

Assistant professor Fernando Tormos-Aponte, environmental policy and politics scholar Gustavo Garcia-Lopez, and political scientist and scholar Mary Angelica Painter conducted a study about energy inequality in the wake of disasters. They wanted to answer the question of whether the political party that a community supports shapes the government’s responsiveness to that community during disasters.

The 2017 territory-wide blackout in Puerto Rico stemming from the combined efforts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria provided a great opportunity for conducting a study. The previous research carried out on resource allocation following a disaster does not consider the ways that politics may impact the differential power restoration rates. However, there is evidence of the electorally beneficial and socioeconomically unequal ways in which government officials allocate resources during a disaster. During times of disaster recovery, governments can engage in a practice coined clientelism. Clientelism is the practice of allocating resources and services in exchange for political support. Therefore, the current disaster recovery efforts and power restoration policies that are in place put larger burdens on marginalized or socially vulnerable communities. The current policies also increase the existing inequalities and add new vulnerabilities within socially vulnerable communities like those in Puerto Rico. The coined term for the current power restoration policies is “the colorblind approach.”

To conduct the study, data on the power restoration from the Puerto Rico blackout, a measure of government responsiveness, and a social vulnerability index were used. A mixed-method study with archival research and interviews provided further evidence supporting the claim that socially vulnerable and politically marginalized communities evoke less government responsiveness during disasters. The median days for restoration crew deployment to communities that voted for the ruling party in 2016, the incumbent during the Hurricane Maria recovery, was 74 days, compared to 83 days to communities in which the majority voted for the opposing party candidate.

In politics, people tend to believe that disasters are opportunities to transform socio-economic institutions and infrastructures in ways that decrease vulnerability. Research has proven that disasters are used as opportunities to make a profit or to take advantage of socially vulnerable communities. The study offered two main innovations. The first is the use of energy allocation as a resource and novel measure of government responsiveness during periods of disasters, which is an aspect of government responsiveness that has life or death implications. The second is the development of an index of social vulnerability that enables an accounting of vulnerability in majority-minority regions.

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This post was written by JaQuia White ‘22, an SMU Tower Center Intern. She is majoring in Corporate Communication and Public Affairs with a focus in Public Affairs and Political Communication and a Women and Gender Studies minor. She is on the SMU Women’s Basketball team and is the President of the Black Student-Athlete Committee. She is also the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion chair for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.