Archive for Monday, October 20, 2003

Federal changes will influence disaster spending

FEMA puts priority on upgrades to properties before emergencies

October 20, 2003

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Paula Phillips remembers when the Kansas River rose from its banks 10 years ago.

She was in a motor boat in North Lawrence along Second Street, looking at damage caused by floodwaters 6 to 10 feet deep. Across town, children were playing in Centennial Park, oblivious to the disaster.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'Don't you people know there is a flood?"' said Phillips, Douglas County's emergency management director.

It's a contrast that illustrates how many people view disasters and mitigation. Unless it has happened to them, few acknowledge the prospect of danger and take the time and spend the money to ensure their homes and communities are prepared for the next big event.

However, changes in the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency awards funds for mitigation projects could end up changing the way communities think about preparedness.

Currently, states can use 15 percent of post-disaster recovery funds to assist with mitigation efforts. Along the Kansas River and throughout Kansas, such money was used to help buy out 900 properties after the 1993 flood.

Julie Eichem, state hazard mitigation officer for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, said she's concerned such an effort would be stymied under the new federal directives. FEMA's new policy will give priority to pre-disaster mitigation projects, likely meaning more money will be targeted toward hurricane-prone areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Charlie McGonigle, a planner with the state Division of Emergency Management, said Kansas had received $300 million since 1993 in disaster relief, with $48 million used for mitigation. Current projects include wastewater improvements in Fort Scott, Leavenworth and Olathe.

"I've always felt we've done pre-disaster mitigation, even though the money came post-disaster," he said.

After an ice storm in 2002, Kansas used federal money to help local public utilities upgrade their electric distribution systems throughout eastern Kansas to current standards. And funds sent to assist recovery from tornado damage in the Wichita area were used to build safe rooms in schools. More than 10,000 students now have access to such shelters.

In the absence of federal money, disaster mitigation efforts can be built into infrastructure upgrades, said Gene Krase, the state Division of Emergency Management administrator. The agency also encourages the private sector to work on hazard reduction when making facility or equipment upgrades.

Lawrence recently invested $3.5 million to improve drainage systems. That project, and stricter development regulation, allowed the city to apply for participation in the Community Rating System, which evaluates mitigation efforts. The result was a 15 percent reduction in mandated flood insurance premiums for about 420 policyholders.

Such savings are proof of the benefit of mitigation, something that's not always apparent.

"Mitigation is such a political issue," Phillips said. "The tactics are really a matter of public policy."

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