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'Project Impact' focuses on all ages

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | January 22, 2001

People are never too young to think about disaster preparation. Communities nationwide are reaching into classrooms, reaching out to children and teens, and making disaster preparation a family affair.

Young people are poised to play a major role in Project Impact efforts for the coming year. Project Impact, a local initiative administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was developed to help people make their communities more disaster-resistant.

Disaster mitigation means lessening the impact of a potential disaster. And that means everything from large-scale projects -- rebuilding the entire town drainage system in Saco, ME -- to small-scale efforts such airing public service announcements about disaster preparation and response.

This year, many Project Impact communities have been trying to get disaster mitigation onto the agendas of everyone -- but especially young people.

In Saco, grade schools will debut a "Masters of Disasters" curriculum on Feb. 1. And for older youth, community leaders are holding a scholarship drive for a high school student to enroll in an emergency management-related curriculum.

In Roanoke Valley, VA, where the biggest disaster is flooding, that area's Project Impact mascot -- a salamander -- dots the walls of classrooms. In Morgan County, CO, Project Impact coordinators travel with displays to local schools.

In Charleston County, SC, the topic of hazard awareness in now in the school curriculum for grades 3-8. And the Girl Scouts can earn a Project Impact badge.

And youth in Sparks, NV -- where residents often face the threat of earthquakes, floods, chemical accidents, and fires -- children from kindergarten through eighth grade often have their noses buried in youth disaster newspapers they receive in school. Radio listeners there who tune into Renegade Radio, a teen-focused Christian rock station, can compete in a disaster prevention quiz and win prizes.

"Active participation is what makes it stick in people's heads," said Larry Nadeau, Saco's public works director.

Project Impact reaches more than just young people. In Charleston County, residents can peruse brochures about generator safety and hazard resistant landscaping. Even tourists have can read about hazard tips that may affect them.

In the coming year, it's likely even more people of all ages will become more disaster savvy. Almost as sure as there will be a next disaster, there will be a next "Project Impact' community, said Cindy Ramsay, spokesperson for FEMA's Project Impact office. Even with changes in the White House and a new FEMA director, FEMA staff will continue with the goal of developing 1,000 new Project Impact communities in 2001.

There are currently some 250 Project Impact communities in the nation and some 2,500 businesses that have joined as Project Impact partners. All aim to reduce the damage -- and the loss of life -- which seem to follow disasters.

In the past 10 years, FEMA has spent $20 billion to help communities repair and rebuild after natural disasters. That is only a fraction of the total cost - insurance companies spent additional billions in claims benefits; businesses lost revenues; employees lost jobs; and other government agencies spent millions more.

Project Impact operates with a damage-reduction approach and with the philosophy that preventative actions must be decided at the local level. Most Project Impact communities develop strong partners within the private sector. FEMA encourages Project Impact leaders to develop long-term efforts and investments in prevention measures.

Project Impact began in 1997, when FEMA partnered with seven pilot communities. To each new community, FEMA offers expertise and technical assistance at both the national and regional level. FEMA then guides Project Impact communities through a complete risk assessment, then works closely with local leaders to generate the public, political, and private sector support and resources to successfully complete mitigation activities.

Many local Project Impact leaders report they are excited about the difference they have made in people's lives. "One of the most rewarding experience that I have had is that senior adults and young couples have said after we have purchased their home and they have relocated that when it starts raining they can have a restful sleep at night," said Woodson McGuffee, assistant parish administrator for Ouachita Parish, LA.

After initial seed money provided by FEMA, how do Project Impact communities keep going? Some programs apply for state mitigation grants, other to foundations or the private sector.

Some communities not only need disaster prevention efforts but future generations willing to carry them out. Saco's Project Impact leaders are planning to host a job fair and emergency management will be highlighted as a career, according to Nadeau. "Businesses will also reinforce their desire for qualified safety personnel," he said.

FEMA also partners with other government agencies to carry out Project Impact efforts. Last month, FEMA signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) as a Project Impact partner. FEMA and the USGS will apply science to better prepare for events that cause natural disasters.

"This agreement formalizes the strong working relationship that has existed between USGS and FEMA since FEMA was created, more than 20 years ago, and has grown stronger in recent years," said USGS Director Chip Groat.

"The USGS will provide FEMA with critical earth science information on natural hazards including earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, wildland fires, landslides, and other geologic and hydrologic hazards that is needed to reduce the nation's vulnerability to disasters."

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