Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Do rural places matter more when they are home to urban interests?

This is a possible message from a few recent stories about natural disasters in essentially rural places that are home to sensitive and essentially urban interests. Indeed, this story about the wildfire near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and this one about a nearly flooded nuclear plant in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska (population 685) appeared side-by-side in the west coast print edition of the New York Times today. Yesterday, the New York Times ran this story about the other Nebraska nuclear power plant under threat from the Missouri River flood, this one in Brownville, Nebraska, population 103.

What struck me about these stories was that federal officials--in the case of Los Alamos, U.S. Senator Tom Udall--have taken such significant interest in what is happening. Here's a quote from the story about the New Mexico fire:

"We are throwing absolutely everything at this that we got," Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said in Los Alamos.

The fire has forced the evacuation of the entire city of Los Alamos, population 11,000, cast giant plumes of smoke over the region and raised fears among nuclear watchdogs that it will reach as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste.

By the same token, Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, visited the two Nebraska nuclear plants this week.

None of this is to say that either the national media or federal officials has overlooked the recent natural disasters in the midwest, plains and rural southwest. Indeed, these events have attracted a lot of attention, such as here, here, here, here and here. (The New York Times recent establishment of a news bureau in Kansas City turns out to have been fortuitously timed). And, of course, federal entities such as the Army Corp of Engineers have made key decisions in relation to the disasters, including those regarding who gets flooded (mostly the rural) and who is spared (mostly the urban). Read more here and here.

Nevertheless, coverage of the Los Alamos fire and the flooding around the Nebraska nuclear plants--and the seemingly ramped up attention federal authorities have given these crises--reminded me of the extent to which rural areas are used to "house" interests that serve primarily urban populations, e.g., dangerous nuclear installations.

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