In the aftermath of Irene and Lee, a tide of federal generosity has washed across the region.

For the first time since 1965, residents of Philadelphia and the seven surrounding counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are eligible for disaster aid from Washington.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has worked diligently to encourage people to apply for the assistance, and more than 35,000 in the region have.

FEMA is operating recovery centers seven days a week from West Chester to Philadelphia to Pennsauken. As of Friday, the agency had committed $350 million for the two storms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Delaware was added to the eligible list late Friday.

But in a year that already has set a national record for presidential disaster declarations, whatever is spent around here will be just so many drops in a rapidly filling bucket.

Allowing that the national heart is in the right place, some economists and risk experts wonder whether the nation is spending its way toward a disaster of another type - financial.

They wonder whether the nation is developing a FEMA dependency.

The $80 billion in FEMA aid over the last decade is more than quadruple the amount doled out in the 1960s, adjusted for inflation.

J. David Cummins and colleagues at Temple University estimate that by the end of the century, the cumulative federal disaster price tag could spiral into the trillions.

What's going on?

Certainly all of this has something to do with the weather. Hurricanes remain the No. 1 driver of disaster costs, and the nation is still paying bills for the horrific 2004 and 2005 seasons.

Recent extreme weather has hammered the country, including this year's record floods and devastating tornado season. Climate change could be a factor, at least in the flooding; various studies point to an increase in extreme precipitation on a warming planet.

Long before FEMA, though, hurricanes were affecting the United States, and the weather was extreme somewhere almost every day.

That's not surprising. The nation is in the center of a battleground between polar and tropical air masses, which is why it has more tornadoes than anywhere else in the world.

It is whacked by storms form the Pacific, nor'easters that blow up near the Gulf Stream, and juice-laden storms from the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet before the disaster program began in the 1950s, communities were reluctant to turn to the federal government for help, said Howard Kunreuther, insurance specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Now disaster has evolved into a "stealth entitlement" and is viewed as a "protector of risk," Kunreuther said. Given the level of building nationwide in the last six decades - not all of it wise - that's particularly problematic.

Kunreuther believes that anticipation of federal largesse has contributed to widespread under-insurance. That's bad for the Treasury and some of the disaster victims. "Today people may be expecting more disaster relief than they're going to receive," he said.

Last week's showdown in Congress nothwithstanding, federal disaster aid will continue to flow.

Kunreuther's colleague Erwann Michel-Kerjan has observed that demand for aid - yes, fed in part by media coverage - is robust right after a disaster. Once a disaster is declared, pressure builds for future declarations.

In the 1950s, FEMA averaged just 13 presidential disaster declarations a year.

So far in 2011, a record 83 declarations have been issued. That beats the old record of 81, set last year.

"Our tendency to want to help people quickly recover and communities quickly rebuild does not often include the harder choices needed to reduce long-term risk," said William Travis, director of the Colorado University Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.  "It's a conundrum that society is facing."

He added that continued development in risky areas would mean continued risk of disasters. "We're digging ourselves a hole," he said.

"Nobody should be surprised when disaster losses increase."

Along with the nation's disaster bills.

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-761-8423 or