Cuts to disaster mitigation program questioned in wake of hurricane response

Critics say Bush administration axed Clinton-era program because it worked.

On May 16, 2001, Joe Allbaugh, President Bush's first director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee and laid out the administration's priorities for managing natural disasters.

Allbaugh, Bush's gubernatorial chief of staff in Texas and his 2000 presidential campaign manager, told the senators that he wanted "responsibility and accountability" from the states and localities that depend on FEMA for disaster relief. The agency's aid, he continued, had "evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management."

The answer to the problem, Allbaugh said repeatedly, was mitigation -- sustained preventive action, in the form of public education and better engineering, to reduce or even eliminate disaster-related deaths, injuries, and damage.

Allbaugh had recently toured the Seattle-Tacoma area, which was hit by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in February of that year. The region "did not suffer significant losses," Allbaugh told the lawmakers, "because 20 to 30 years ago, local leaders invested in its future by passing building codes" and putting in place "solid protective measures." Allbaugh promised that FEMA would "focus on implementing pre-disaster mitigation programs that encourage the building of disaster-resistant communities.... I am here to tell you that mitigation works."

The prepared statement was a mitigation attempt of its own, because Allbaugh had also come to explain why the administration had cut one of the most popular disaster-preparedness programs in FEMA's history, a nationwide grants program called Project Impact.

In 1997, FEMA had changed course in its disaster-fighting strategy, when it put more money and official attention into minimizing in advance the effects of natural disasters, instead of just cleaning up after them. The stated goal, as Allbaugh put it four years later, was to create "disaster-resistant communities." To that end, then-FEMA Director James Lee Witt launched Project Impact, a grants program in which cities used federal funds to drum up local public and private support -- in dollars and manpower -- for disaster-mitigation plans tailored to each area. The grants were relatively small -- from $500,000 to $1 million -- and local governments received concise guidebooks and instructions on how to defend against natural disasters, forge partnerships with local businesses and nonprofit groups to pay for the efforts, and create media campaigns to keep up public and political support.

Project Impact was decentralized by design. The idea was not to use federal dollars to do the mitigation, but to use the federal government's backing to generate an initial buzz so that everyone would work toward mitigation goals set on the local level. After that, FEMA would step aside and provide high-level political support. "We said, 'Let's get them the seed money, and let them go,' " says George Haddow, who joined FEMA in 1993 and later served as Witt's deputy chief of staff.

Project Impact started with seven pilot cities. By 2000, nearly 250 communities had joined. Local disaster officials used Project Impact to push forward on long-wanted projects. In Tulsa, Okla., for instance, city officials built model tornado "safe rooms" to show homeowners what they could install in their residences. The local director, Ann Patton, persuaded the Tulsa homebuilders' association to administer a public education program, at no charge, to promote the rooms as a lifesaving device. The association earned goodwill points and helped create a market for tornado-resistant homes. Today, Patton estimates that about 10,000 homes across Oklahoma, and hundreds in Tulsa, have safe rooms. She credits the structures for saving lives when a category F4 tornado ripped through the town of Moore two years ago, with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour.

The Project Impact network in Tulsa grew to more than 400 participants, including companies and individuals. Disaster-management specialists routinely complain that it's hard to muster support for mitigation, because when a disaster is out of sight, it's out of mind. But Project Impact was a catalyst, participants say. "A little federal money is like yeast," Patton says. "You can ... leverage it and do a lot with it." Patton never saw the FEMA grant as the end-all of the city's plans. "I always considered the Project Impact grant as bait.... The city of Tulsa took up the challenge with, I would say, gusto."

Other Project Impact participants tell similar stories. In Miami-Dade County, Fla., officials installed storm shutters and other hurricane-proofing devices on buildings. Their neighbors in Central Florida, which was hit repeatedly by hurricanes last year, took similar measures. In Seattle, before the 2001 earthquake, public schools removed large water tanks used in toilet systems from their rooftops, so that they wouldn't collapse on students and staff. (Ironically, Project Impact's termination was announced on the day of the earthquake.) Banks and insurance companies that became Project Impact partners also offered incentives to homeowners to strengthen their houses. Washington Mutual, the nation's sixth-largest bank, gave discounted loans in Washington state for earthquake retrofitting.

It's unclear whether all Project Impact participants fared so well. FEMA never completed an analysis of the mitigation work. An agency-commissioned study of the seven pilot communities, by the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center, found that localities risked losing momentum as partners came and went, particularly elected officials who retired or were defeated. "Ongoing efforts are needed to keep political officials engaged," especially when hurricanes or tornadoes were not bearing down on them, the study found.

But if Project Impact's tangible accomplishments aren't easily quantified, supporters contend that it had another, potentially more important effect: It got people talking about disaster planning in a way they never had. "There were emergency managers back then who couldn't spell 'mitigation,' " says Eric Holdeman, the director of the Office of Emergency Management in King County, Wash. The project drove home a philosophy that "what's important is that we try and prevent disasters, and not just keep recovering from them," Holdeman says.

"When Project Impact came along, things were being said that no one else had said before," says Tommy Malmay, the former director of emergency management in Monroe, La. "The most important part was the message: breaking the cycle of disaster, rebuild, disaster, rebuild." By 2000, the message had spread, and the Project Impact partnerships nationwide encompassed an array of nongovernmental parties, including hospitals, religious institutions, schools, local media outlets, and chambers of commerce.

Project Impact also boosted the spirits of disaster managers, who frequently complain that elected officials don't heed their warnings until it's too late. But in Project Impact, and more specifically in FEMA chief Witt, they found a savior. Witt, a career disaster manager like them, was a charismatic figure, a commanding speaker who had the ear of President Clinton. He attracted legions of fans from both sides of the political spectrum. Lawmakers praised him for turning FEMA from one of the worst-managed federal agencies into a model of efficiency. Witt took his goodwill tour on the road, and turned ceremonies for signing up Project Impact communities into photo opportunities. Along the way, he became the Pied Piper of the disaster world. "James Lee Witt was emphasizing mitigation, so we all started working on mitigation," Holdeman says.

Which may have a lot to do with why Project Impact died. Many supporters believe that the Bush administration resented Project Impact because it was a successful, Clinton-era program. Why else, they ask, would a Republican administration -- one that favors low-cost programs with significant private-sector participation -- cut a program that used just such a model? "They politicized it," says Frank Reddish, the emergency-management coordinator of Miami-Dade County and a self-described "longtime Republican." Reddish credits Project Impact with raising awareness among local officials of all parties about the need for disaster mitigation. "Just because it was invented by a Democrat doesn't mean it was bad," he says.

Former FEMA Director Allbaugh didn't respond to a request for an interview. But in his 2001 Senate testimony, he said, "Disaster mitigation and prevention activities are inherently grassroots.... It is not the role of the federal government to tell a community what it needs to do to protect its citizens and infrastructure."

Allbaugh didn't believe Project Impact had proven its efficacy. FEMA hadn't quantified "the cost-benefit of the federal dollars spent in this effort," he told senators. "Project Impact is not mitigation," Allbaugh said. "It is an initiative to get 'consumer buy-in.' In many communities, it became the catchphrase to get local leaders together to look at ways to do mitigation.... Now we move forward from the buy-in to doing the work of mitigation."

Congress is likely to debate reinstating Project Impact in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In announcing FEMA reform legislation in recent days, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., called upon the agency to "budget for, and champion, key mitigation programs such as Project Impact." In the House, California Democrat Lois Capps says she wants to see Project Impact restored. And Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., whose Portland district was a Project Impact member, says he'll push to revive the program as part of a broader focus on mitigation at FEMA. "This stuff works," Blumenauer says, adding, "I've never been able to get a good policy reason" why the project was cut. "It would seem that, given the [administration's] rhetoric of partnerships, public-private initiatives, stretching resources, and saving tax dollars, this hits every one of the bullet points."