UMass Amherst Professor Considers Federal Funding and Natural Disasters in New Book

AMHERST, Mass. - Natural disasters in the United States, including floods, hurricanes, coastal erosion, wildfires, and earthquakes, on the average cause roughly $20 billion annually in direct costs to the government, the insurance industry, and victims, and these costs continue to escalate, according to Rutherford H. Platt, professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts. Platt, a geographer and lawyer, is an expert in water and land use, as well as floods and coastal issues. He explores the political issues surrounding natural disasters in "Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events," published by Island Press.

Few would argue about the need for federal involvement in catastrophes such as Hurricane Andrew or the Northridge, Calif. earthquake, or the provision of immediate aid to lower-income victims of disasters of any magnitude, Platt says. But presidential declarations of "major disasters" are skyrocketing, with declarations made nearly every week. Such declarations make stricken areas eligible for federal emergency relief funds.

This raises serious questions about who should pay for foreseeable disasters, according to Platt. "Has the availability of federal disaster assistance and flood insurance contributed to a false sense of security? Are people more likely to invest in property in hazardous locations in the belief that, if worse comes to worst, the federal government will offer financial relief? Are communities, concerned about property values and tax revenue, more likely to allow or tacitly encourage building or rebuilding in unsafe locations, in the expectation of a federal bail-out if disaster strikes?" he asks. At the heart of the matter, says Platt, is the issue of how much responsibility individuals and local communities should be expected to assume in order to protect themselves. The book also offers case studies examining the federal role and relief expenditures in three disaster recovery efforts: Fire Island, N.Y., after the 1992-93 winter storms; St. Charles County, Mo., after the Midwest flood of 1993; and Oakland, Calif., after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 and the urban-wildland fire of 1991.

Platt’s previous books include "Land Use and Society" (Island Press, 1996), and "The Ecological City" (UMass Press, 1994). He is vice chair of a study on the costs of coastal hazards conducted by the Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment in Washington, D.C. The book includes contributions by Ute Dymon, a former UMass faculty member now a geographer at Kent State University; Claire Rubin of Washington, D.C.; Jessica Spelke Jansujwicz, a Ph.D. student working with Platt; Alexandra Dawson, an environmental lawyer; and several former UMass students.