Thomas A. Birkland
Natural disasters pose important problems for societies and governments. Governments are charged with making policies to protect public safety. Large disasters, then, can reveal problems in government policies designed to protect the public from the effects of such disasters. Large disasters can serve as focusing events, a term used to describe large, sudden, rare, and harmful events that gain a lot of attention from the public and from policy makers. Such disasters highlight problems and, as the public policy literature suggests, open windows of opportunity for policy change. However, as a review of United States disaster policy from 1950 through 2015 shows, change in disaster policy is often, but not always, driven by major disasters that act as focusing events. But the accumulation of experience from such disasters can lead to learning, which can be useful if later, even more damaging and attention-grabbing events arise.