Witt urges more disaster prevention

BY SUSAN KIM | Washington, DC | November 14, 2000

When James Lee Witt defines disaster mitigation, he invariably does it by example.

"I never will forget a couple in Mississippi," the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) Director told some 1,600 community leaders gathered for the third annual Project Impact Summit this week. "They lived in the same house for all 51 years of their marriage. It was flooded 41 times in 51 years. The last two times they got flooded they were too ashamed to file a flood insurance claim. Now they live in a new house. They said even their health had improved because they now live without the stress and worry and pain. And that's just one."

In what Witt calls "a journey from heartache to hope," Project Impact, a three-year-old initiative to build disaster resistant communities nationwide, is expanding.

"America is a safer place, a stronger place," Witt said. "Together we've changed the way America thinks about disaster."

Witt commended such local accomplishments as restored wetlands, earthquake-resistant construction, safe rooms, and raised boardwalks.

While celebrating Project Impact's success in nearly 250 communities nationwide, Witt called for a much more rapid expansion, issuing a challenge to add 1,000 more Project Impact communities within the next year. He hopes to speed disaster mitigation by streamlining the process by which Project Impact communities are designated. Project Impact communities receive FEMA-sponsored expertise that helps local leaders asses their risks, then develop self-sustaining programs to offset those risks.

"Project Impact was created with the conviction that wisdom lies at the community level," said Witt. "I want to open the doors to more communities and more quickly than ever before."

Several types of communities would be eligible for streamlined acceptance into Project Impact, including communities that have already demonstrated a commitment to disaster prevention and communities covered by a presidential disaster declaration.

Witt said that mitigation must get more intense because disasters are getting worse. "The events we see are much more devastating."

In a sobering look at the future, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) -- a personal friend of Witt's who is well-known for his disaster mitigation advocacy -- said that despite Project Impact's success, disaster-related damage isn't decreasing.

"The vast majority of our national disasters are floods. Damage has not been reduced. In fact, the rate of loss appears to be accelerating. In the next 10 years, 10,000 structures will fall into the ocean" due to beach erosion and mismanaged water systems, he said.

Blumenauer said that the water cycle is going to be the dominant issue in the next century, both domestically and internationally. "We have well over a billion people without safe drinking water and without safe sewage internationally, he said.

"In the U.S., we have half our wetlands gone. We have the challenge of fertilizer, animal waste, and sewage in our waterways. In the West we're going to be at crunch time with our water resources. It's time to protect what we've got. We continue to create problems that FEMA has to deal with. For example, we have 40,000 Depression-era dams throughout the country ending their useful life."

He said that the solution lies at the local level. "It is being driven by the grassroots. Government should be a better partner in improving the quality of life. The question for us as federal officials is how can we help? For one thing, we can set a better example. The Department of Defense is the largest infrastructure manager in the world. It ought to be a model for livable communities. It shouldn't take 100 years to clean up the unexploded bombs across the country. That's not acceptable."

Blumenauer said that many people are taking disaster prevention more seriously than they once did. "We can warn people. We can help them become more disaster resistant. Then, if they still choose to stay in harm's way, they're on their own nickel.

"People are no longer dismissive of the fact that disasters are getting worse. They're no longer dismissive of global warming. So I'm optimistic."

As Project Impact keeps adding communities, it also continues to add corporate and voluntary agency partners.

In a ceremony on Tuesday, Witt signed memorandums of understanding with two new Project Impact partners, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Coleman Powermate.

HSUS "brings much-needed attention to household pets and animals of all kinds in disaster," said Witt.

Melissa Rubin, HSUS senior director of disaster relief and field services, added that "animal issues are people issues. The number-one reason people don't evacuate is because they can't take their pets with them."

Coleman Powermate has donated hundreds of portable generators to Project Impact. Later this week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will also become a Project Impact partner.

The Project Impact Summit, which runs through Thursday, offers workshops put together by community leaders that focus on the best practices and new resources related to disaster mitigation.

Blumenauer pointed out that, while damage may be increasing, the outlook is still hopeful. "The American public is winning in the contest of creating more livable communities."

Witt added that, for many communities, disaster mitigation has become "part of their everyday lives. We must keep working to spare even more citizens the heartache of disaster."

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