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Associate Professor, Virginia Tech

Patrick Roberts has a lifelong fascination with how governments manage emergencies. He’s also interested in how sometimes, when the wheels fall off, bureaucrats speak back to politicians. This began when he grew up along the Texas gulf coast and helped protect homes against hurricane winds and rain. After disaster struck, he noticed how mayors always seemed to blame the state and federal government, the federal government pointed the finger at localities, and everyone blamed bureaucrats. Somehow, the president was assumed to be the responder in chief. Roberts wondered why.

His first career was an Associated Press reporter, where he covered ice storms, floods, and New York state politics. Reporting on day-to-day events stoked his curiosity about why emergencies unfold, and why disaster policy always seems to respond to events rather than anticipate them.

His research traces the development of disaster and security organizations and their capacity, performance and especially their degree of autonomy, or ability to develop and pursue a perspective independent of the will of elected politicians and interests. Organizational autonomy is particularly important given the thickening layers of bureaucracy and increasingly coordinated agendas in contemporary politics. The idea also complements the emerging literature on networks.

Patrick’s book, Disasters and the American State, provides the only single-volume history of the development of federal government disaster management in the United States. The contents range from the origins of the disaster state between 1789 and 1914 to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security between 1993 and 2003 and include details behind the rise of emergency management. the formation of FEMA, and the rising expectations of government in disaster politics.

Patrick manages the Homeland Security Policy Graduate Certificate, which helps prepare those who work in the fields of homeland security strategy and emergency management. The certificate helps students evaluate the larger context of current global security threats. The certificate integrates real-world experiences such as visiting emergency operations centers with reading and discussion in small seminars.

His research has been funded by a variety of organizations who all have a mission of advancing knowledge of how bureaucrats, politicians, and the public can work together to reduce risk. Roberts is always excited about partnerships with organizations focused managing disaster and security organizations, as well as those who would benefit from fresh thinking in the form of student projects.


  • –present
    Associate Professor, Virginia Tech