Nov. 17, 2005 – As Eric Holdeman watched images of Hurricane Katrina destroying New Orleans pulse across his television in Seattle last month, he couldnâ€™t shake the furious thought that the tragedy could have been lessened.
As the director of Emergency Management in King County, Washington, Holdeman was at the center of a different sort of natural disaster just four years ago: a 6.8-magnitude earthquake that tore apart Seattle and Tacoma and was felt as far away as Salt Lake City, Utah. The February 2001 event injured 410 people and caused $2 billion worth of damage. Still, no one died and everyone agreed the quake could have made a much bigger mess if not for preventative actions credited in large part to a then- thriving federal program called Project Impact.
Created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the now-defunct Project Impact gave $25 million a year to communities across the country for "disaster mitigation" services to counter and diminish the effects of catastrophes.
In Seattle, federal money boosted preparedness by removing overhead flush tanks and radiators and other high-impact structural hazards in 43 schools. The county used the funding to create alternative communication systems so that when the quake jammed regular phone lines, emergency, fire and medical personnel could interact. A massive education campaign meant that homes throughout western Washington had been retrofitted for earthquakes.
Some supporters believe Project Impact died because its success was too connected with the Clinton Administration.
Ironically, just a few hours before the quake hit Seattle, President Bush rolled out his 2002 Budget, which axed all funding for Project Impact. The program had "not been effective," the budget summary said. And, added then-White House spokesperson Jimmy Orr, there might be faster ways to implement mitigation programs.
Since then, no such new program has been established.
In Holdemanâ€™s view, the "ounce of prevention" Project Impact could have offered New Orleans might have made an enormous difference. "Nature has taught us again and again that this short-term focus is at our own peril," he said.
Some supporters believe Project Impact died because its success was too connected with the Clinton Administration. Why else, they wonder, would a Republican administration kill a project that did so much to bolster local control?
Regardless of the reason, with natural disasters now consistent front-page news, an increasing number of politicians, academics and activists say reinstating mitigation money shouldnâ€™t be political. "In New Orleans, the community wasnâ€™tâ€¦ as prepared as it should have been," said Marc Levitan, director of Louisiana State Universityâ€™s hurricane center.
"Education is absolutely key in the face of disasters," Levitan told The NewStandard. "It takes time â€“ on the ground, face-to-face, year in and year out â€“ and thatâ€™s what Project Impact was so good at. For comparatively little money, I thought it was a pretty effective program. Iâ€™m strongly supportive of bringing it back."
Aside from funding, FEMA provided technical support to generate media campaigns and to facilitate partnerships between government, local businesses and nonprofit groups.
In 1997, when then-FEMA director James Lee Witt started Project Impact, its goal â€“ to create "disaster-resistant communities" â€“ was nothing short of revolutionary. At the time, response and recovery were the top dogs of the agency. No one wanted to talk about prevention. Back then, the agency and local governments couldnâ€™t even obtain funding to mitigate disaster until disaster struck.
"It was totally ass-backwards the way it was set up" before Project Impact, said George Haddow, who was deputy chief of staff at FEMA from 1993 to 2000.
Under Project Impact, FEMA gave cities seed money â€“ relatively small grants from $500,000 to $1 million â€“ which they could then leverage for other funding from local government and private entities in order to create disaster-prevention plans that were area-specific.
Aside from funding, FEMA provided technical support to generate media campaigns and to facilitate partnerships between government, local businesses and nonprofit groups. Starting with seven pilot cities, by 2000, the project swelled to 230 communities. Haddow said, prior to the Bush funding cuts, Project Impact was about to add another 700 communities to its roster.
Within less than four years of implementation, 10,000 homes in Oklahoma had safe rooms protecting them from tornados. In Miami-Dade, Florida, officials installed hurricane-proofing devices like storm shutters on buildings. In the Red River region of North Dakota and Minnesota, the community used FEMA money to enlist the local public television station to create a public information campaign to teach kids about the basin and provide daily information on flood risk. It is uncertain whether all project cities fared this well since FEMA never completed an analysis of the program.
"It wasnâ€™t a perfect program, but, by all indications from the feedback we were getting back on the ground, this was the kind of program that local communities wanted," former Deputy Director Haddow, now a consultant, told TNS. "We had a lot of good successes. The receptivity to the idea was incredible. For the first time, businesses were involved. Itâ€™s a tragic loss."
FEMA did not return numerous calls The NewStandard made to various offices and officials.
Aside from the quantifiable accomplishments of Project Impact, Dick Gross, director of the North Dakota-based Consensus Council, noted another loss attributed to the programâ€™s nixing. Project Impact had what proponents consider invaluable success at bringing people from diverse sectors of the community â€“ and different communities â€“ together to address mitigation issues.
In the aftermath of the Red River Flood of 1997, which damaged 60,000 homes, 26 primary stakeholders in Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba, Canada used Project Impact funding to create agreements and action plans for future flood mitigation. Gross was the lead facilitator throughout the two-and-a-half-year process that involved lectures by environmental and engineering experts and lots of dialogue. Now, legislators from the different states and province meet every year to discuss flooding, drought and other mutual concerns.
"These were people who had previously blamed each other for all the problems. It was overwhelming, but as they gathered an understanding of the facts they developed positive relationships and trust," Gross said. "Many of us involved in this kept sending e-mails after Katrina saying it would have been great if [the Gulf Coast] had a process like ours. Even post-flooding, it would be great. It could help themâ€¦ restore and rebuild in an appropriate manner that avoids future flooding."
Members of Congress are working to ensure just that. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), introduced legislation in early September that, as part of a broader effort to reform FEMA. Clintonâ€™s proposal budgets for and champions programs like Project Impact. In the House, Representative Lois Capps (D-California) has drafted a bill that would recreate a Project Impact-like program to help local communities identify and assess risks from natural disasters and put measures in place to reduce damage.
So far neither bill has been heard on the floor. "Hurricane Katrina highlighted the need for communities to generate what is the best way for them to be prepared," said Rep. Cappsâ€™s press secretary, Shannon Lohrmann. "These are no cookie cutter approaches. Prevention is worth so much more than dealing with it after the fact."