Disaster Assistance As
Political Patronage


Modern federal disaster assistance began with the 1950 Disaster Assistance Act. According to this law, a state governor requests a presidential declaration of a disaster which then triggers the federal disaster assistance. Earlier, the number of presidential declarations averaged about twelve per year, but during the Bush and Clinton administations the number has gone up to about sixty per year. Federal disaster assistance has become a form of political patronage earning the name of nouveau pork.
In his book, Disasters and Democracy, Rutherford Platt uses three case studies to examine the strenghs and weaknesses of our disaster assistance programs. He examines the politics of coastal erosion on Fire Island, New York, a summer retreat for affluent New Yorkers. In this case Fire Island-ers have been very successful in extracting funds from the government for beach replenishment and repairs of storm damage to private property while resisting government efforts to mitigate coastal hazards such as minimum setbacks for beach houses.

In the second case study the authors examine the federal response to the Mississippi floods of the summer of 1993. They focus on St. Charles County, Missouri, the region around St. Louis that was hard hit by the floods. The total federal cost in disaster assistance to the nine state region affected by the 1993 flood was estimated at 4.2 billion with little or no local contributions. It appears that a well intentioned assistance program has evolved into an entitlement.

In the third case study, the authors look at the response to the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 and the East Bay Hills fire of 1991. The Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed a 1.5 mile section of the Nimitz freeway in Oakland, killing forty-one people, and a 50 foot section of the Bay Bridge. Stanford University suffered $160 million in damage, but public schools were generally not badly damaged due to earthquake construction codes adopted in 1933. The earthquake damaged more than 22,000 residential structures, 1567 commercial buildings, and 137 public buildings. In spite of the damage inflicted, the Loma Prieta earthquake was not the "big one" comparable to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The best guess is the "big one", magnitude 7 or greater, will probably occur in the next thirty years and probably be centered in the densely populated East Bay area.

The East Bay Hills fire of 1991 was the third worst urban fire disaster in U.S. history, after the 1906 San Francisco fire and the Chicago fire of 1871. Although the area burned was only 1700 acres, twenty-five people died, and 2,621 homes and 758 apartments were destroyed in about nine hours. Damage amounted to at least $1.5 billion. Minimal efforts were made for mitigating future fire hazards and maximal efforts were made for rapid rebuilding of new and bigger structures in the same, fire prone hills. We spoke with Rutherford Platt about how to improve federal disaster assistance.

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