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Seattle Project Impact may have averted tragedy

BY PJ HELLER | Seattle, WA | April 16, 2001

"We don't really want to think about the fact of what could have happened."

—Ines Pearce

A federal program -- which President George W. Bush says is ineffective and should be eliminated -- may have helped avert a major tragedy at an elementary school during the recent earthquake here.

Bush proposed cutting the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Project Impact from the budget on the same day a 6.8 quake rocked the Pacific Northwest. Ines Pearce, coordinator for Project Impact in Seattle, said the program, designed to help communities protect themselves against the effects of natural disasters, may have helped avoid a catastrophe at one elementary school, where a 300-gallon water tank in the school's attic broke free from its cabling.

Students were in a classroom directly below the attic. As part of Project Impact, that tank, as well as others at schools throughout the area, had been secured and drained of water. That allowed the attic floor to withstand the unexpected movement of the empty tank when it broke free of its mooring. "We don't ever think about had it been full," Pearce said. "We don't ever finish that sentence. We don't really want to think about the fact of what could have happened."

Working with the schools on non-structural retrofitting is just one role that Project Impact has undertaken in Seattle. Other areas in which the program is involved are home retrofitting, small business disaster mitigation and hazard mapping.

Although information is still being collected on whether the federal program helped minimize damage from the Feb. 28 earthquake, city and county officials have said buildings and bridges retrofitted even before Project Impact began in 1998 appeared to have suffered less overall damage.

The city and county have spent tens of millions of dollars on upgrading older schools, public buildings, bridges, and highways to protect against earthquakes."I haven't heard of any home retrofitted (since Project Impact) that had major damage," Pearce reported. "Everyone wants to know did it work," she added. "This was not the earthquake we've been planning and preparing for. It obviously shook houses enough that there was damage. That's what we're trying to get through to the homeowner, that it doesn't take much."

The program here has targeted the most vulnerable homes -- typicallywood-frame houses built before the 1970s which are held on a concrete foundation by gravity. About 125,000 of those homes are located in the city with another 125,000 throughout King County.

Project Impact offers a free set of pre-engineered plans for homeowners so they do not have to hire an engineer; provides a fast-track permitting procedure to accomplish the bolt-down work; offers training for both homeowners and contractors; maintains a tool-lending library, and is looking to expand a pilot grant program available for low- to moderate-income homeowners.

"It's not only about protecting their investment," Pearce said. "It's also about protecting the safety of the family." She noted that some insurance companies were now requiring retrofit work in order to obtain earthquake insurance. "That's why we do so much with education," she explained. "We want people to understand we have a ticking clock. This is something that should be done to protect your family and your investment in your home. We don't want to scare people. We just want them to understand that there's a potential there and there are things that they can do to minimize their damage and the potential for injuries."

Educating the public has been a major focus of Project Impact. "Education has been the key," Pearce said. "If people don't understand that there is a potential risk or hazard, they won't feel there is any reason to do anything different."

About 2,000 homeowners have gone through Project Impact classes, Pearce reported. So far, nearly 300 permits have been approved by the city for the retrofitting work. Pearce said the program was designed to be generic so that any community could use the same resources, rather than having to "reinvent the wheel."

At least 16 other communities have since adopted the program used in Seattle. "Certainly with the earthquake, we're getting a lot more interest," she said. A second aspect of Project Impact is hazard mapping to identify vulnerable areas. Pearce said that program will affect future policy making and land use by allowing officials and decision makers to have a better understanding of the area's hazards.

A third area involves the non-structural retrofitting program for schools, which included removing overhead hazards in 46 schools and the draining and securing of water tanks in school attics. Part of that retrofit program includes a volunteer effort to get parents, teachers and others to go into schools to secure shelves, computers and other items that could be damaged or destroyed in a quake. Seven schools had completed that work at the time of the quake. Three others have since completed the task.

Pearce noted that large corporations in the Seattle area already have completed mitigation efforts, so Project Impact has focused its on small businesses. She said such businesses were especially at risk in a disaster because they might not be able to remain open "and for a small business that is disastrous."

"It's targeted to smaller business that don't have a lot of resources," she said. Pearce said that disaster mitigation -- whether for homeowners or business owners -- was an area where it was sometimes difficult to generate a lot of public interest "because you don't see it."

"If you bolt your house to the foundation, it doesn't add an extra porch or a hot tub," she said. "Mitigation is one of those things that is sight unseen." Even so, she said, such a program can help "minimize the potential of lost lives and property in a future disaster."

She also said the name "Project Impact" tended to be a little misleading. "We're not doing projects," she explained. "These are long-term sustainable programs that every community can support. The idea is you're never going to be finished. There's always something more you can do."

No matter where you live in the country, you are at risk for some sort of disaster," Pearce warned. "This is an opportunity for the community to work together under the Project Impact umbrella to really focus on and do something about it."

Whether communities will have that opportunity much longer is currently in doubt. On the same day the earthquake struck the Seattle area, Bush was proposing saving $25 million by ending the disaster preparedness program. Bush contended that Project Impact "has not proven effective."

The $25 million cut in Project Impact was part of an overall $500 million in cutbacks in disaster spending proposed by the Bush administration. "By eliminating the (Project Impact) budget, it takes away the opportunity for other communities to try this out and focus on mitigation and do what they can to minimize the potential of lost lives and property in a future disaster," Pearce said. "It would be a shame for the funding to go away," she added. "As we have seen here with that school (with the empty water tank that broke free), how do you put a cost on the lives that were saved? That's what's difficult about mitigation. If nothing happens, that's a good thing. But it's hard to measure that. The idea is -- and we've seen it for years -- if you spend money before a disaster happens, you save money in disaster costs afterwards."

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