Researchers slam disaster preparation

BY P.J. HELLER | CHAPEL HILL, NC | February 19, 1999

Hazard mitigation plans drawn up the states aren't in most cases worth the paper they're written on, according to a researcher who reviewed plans from Maine to California.

"We found the plans were really deficient in a lot of respects," said David Godschalk, a professor of city and regional planning at the

University of North Carolina. "They hadn't been carefully done, thoughtfully done. They weren't really being carried out.

"They were paper documents that sat on a shelf to meet a federal requirement but didn't do any good in practice," he said.

Findings from Godschalk's nearly three-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation, are contained in a 575-page book, "Natural

Hazard Mitigation: Recasting Disaster Policy and Planning."

Godschalk, who has been involved in planning for 40 years, said he was surprised by the findings.

"I had read the federal guidelines as to what you should do, what should be in a good hazard mitigation plan at the state level," he said. "I assumed that most of the plans would follow those guidelines and we would basically find a well-crafted set of documents and an intention to use those to guide the spending of the federal grant monies for hazard mitigation. So I was quite surprised to find that there were so many that just didn't do that. These were just paper documents.

"Some didn't even include things that are required by law," he added. "Others were poorly put together and clearly not effective."

Godschalk's findings came as no surprise, however, to Dick Krajeski, a national disaster specialist for Church World Service (CWS).

"Frankly, there's very little that's actually done in terms of mitigation planning by anybody," he said.

Godschalk's study was the first comprehensive examination of the Stafford Act, which was passed by Congress in 1988 to reduce damages

from natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. Mitigation plans from the states are required before they can get disaster relief funds approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

As a result of the study, Godschalk said FEMA has asked him to conduct a workshop for its regional planning staff to discuss weaknesses of

the plans and to offer suggestions on how the plans can be strengthened.

FEMA has drafted a national mitigation strategy and is working with communities on "Project Impact-Building a Disaster Resistant Community" to try to change the way the nation deals with disasters. Project Impact is designed so communities can protect themselves from the effects of natural disasters by taking actions that help reduce disruption and loss.

FEMA noted that in the past 10 years, it has spent $20 billion to help people repair and rebuild their communities after a natural disaster.

"The increasing number and severity of natural disasters over the past decade demands that action be taken to reduce the threat that hurricanes, tornadoes, severe storms, floods and fires impose upon the nation's economy and the safety of its citizens," FEMA officials said.

Godschalk, along with several people involved with disaster recovery for interfaith organizations, admitted that hazard mitigation can be a

tough sell.

"We need to build more commitment to the idea of mitigation," Godschalk said. "It's a hard sell sometimes, to make people sort of see the light that it's worth spending the time and effort and money ahead of time to prepare for something that you don't know is going to strike in the next six months or the next year."

Mitigation can involve moving homes out of floodplains, banning development in a hurricane-prone area, or elevating or strengthening

homes to prevent recurring damage. Too often, officials have found, homes damaged by natural disasters are simply rebuilt in the same

place and to the same standards, only to be damaged when another disaster strikes the same area.

Complicating hazard mitigation efforts is a sea of red tape -- which can bog down a housing buyout for nearly two years, for example -- and

politics, observers say.

"It's easier for a Congressman to go out after a major disaster and be photographed presenting a check for disaster recovery to the mayor

than it is to take a hard policy stance in Congress for implementing hazard mitigation planning," Godschalk said.

Krajeski and David Cooper, a CWS disaster consultant and a facilitator with the Kentucky Interchurch Disaster Recovery Program (KIDRP),

said the people most in need of hazard mitigation assistance are the poor, the elderly, the handicapped and women and children.

"The poor are almost always forced to live in the most hazardous areas," Krajeski said. "They don't have the kind of income that allows them to do the physical mitigation that's needed. Women and children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to disasters, meaning they have the least ability to prepare for, cope with or transcend a hazardous event."

But Krajeski said several interfaith groups around the country are working on mitigation.

"I'm seeing more and more local interfaith directors and more and more interfaiths being very much interested in mitigation," he said. "But

to be quite honest, I'm not seeing the kind of support I'd like to see from the denominations.

"From my perspective, it (the church) has been a good and vital ministry," Krajeski said. "The church has been involved in repairing and rebuilding. It's been wonderful. But we've had incidents, such as in West Virginia, where people came in to repair houses and literally within three months the houses were flooded again."

Cooper, whose KIDRP organization has rebuilt about 1,000 homes since a devastating flood hit Kentucky in 1997, said hazard mitigation has

been a major emphasis.

"Anytime we can, we do any kind of mitigation that we can," he said.

That can range from encouraging people to move out of the floodplain, elevating their homes or simply raising electrical appliances and hot

water heaters.

"Whenever we rebuild from the ground up, we strong urge the families to build out of the floodplain," he said. "We have built houses from

the ground up as high as 14 concrete blocks above the ground in order to get people out of the floodplain. They're practically living in


Cooper said many of those people have no other place to go.

"It's easy to understand," he explained. "These are poor people who own a piece of property. They don't have the options of just pulling up

stakes and going somewhere else. They don't have the resources."

Even if they are offered a buyout on their property, they often still do not have enough money to relocate anywhere except to another

hazard-prone site, he said. In other cases, he noted, the people have sentimental attachments to their property, having been born and raised

there, and simply do not want to leave.

"Mitigation is happening," Cooper said. "But mitigation is not happening as well as it could happen. There are a lot of factors involved. It's not a simple issue. But it is primarily the most vulnerable and poorest people that have the least opportunity to benefit and really be helped by mitigation."

One of the biggest problems from a federal government standpoint is the time required to complete a buyout of property, he complained.

In tiny Falmouth, Ky., one of the areas hardest hit by the '97 flood, some 80 to 100 families have been waiting for more than a year and a

half to find out if the government is going to buy their damaged homes. In the interim, they have been living in mobile homes provided by

FEMA while their homes sit untouched, Cooper said. KIDRP had an office in the town and was repairing homes of residents not in the buyout program. That office has since been closed.

"So you've got people sitting there for 10, 12, 14 months and they're still waiting for the feds to say, 'We're going to buy you out.' What

happens if the feds say they don't quality? Then they've got nothing. They don't have a house (they can live in). They don't have trailers to

stay in. They don't have rental assistance. They don't have the churches there to repair their homes. They've got nothing."

Cooper said that buyouts need to be completed in three to six months after a disaster, nine months at the most.

"If it gets any longer than that it's not going to happen," he said. "The only ones who come out on that buyout are the affluent...who have

rental properties or vacant land."

Godschalk said he was hopeful his study would result in better hazard mitigation planning.

"There are things you can do in advance of a strike of a hazard that will save lives, that will reduce property damage, that will save the cost of cleaning up the next one," he said. "That's the whole theory of mitigation, rather than just saying it's going to happen and there's nothing we can do about so we might as well just sit here fat, dumb and happy and let it strike us and then we'll go to the federal government and the state government and ask for help to clean it up.

"We're saying let's be a little smarter than that about where we build, how we build, and what we do in the face of these known

occurrences," Godschalk said.

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