Creating Disaster Resistant Communities
By James Lee Witt
One of the saddest aspects of our job at FEMA is when we have to visit a community that has been devastated by disasters, not once but twice or even three times. And the saddest thing of all is when a community is unwilling or unable to learn from painful experience and make itself less vulnerable to recurring natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, or hurricanes.
At the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and in State emergency management agencies across this country, we’re learning the lesson that our mothers tried to teach us: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
It’s not enough to help victims after a disaster has occurred— not with disaster costs of $21.3 billion after 1989, not with the need that still remains after people’s property has been restored but the fabric of their lives is still in tatters.
We need to build communities strong enough to make disasters of all kinds less dangerous and we need to help communities rebuild stronger than ever after disaster strikes. In emergency management, we call that work mitigation.
For the first time ever, Congress has appropriated funds in this year’s budget for mitigation projects before disasters happen. We received $2 million this year. We’ve requested $50 million next year.
We have the full support of President Clinton and leaders in Congress from both parties. And we plan to use these funds in support of FEMA’s newest initiative: promoting what we call Disaster Resistant Communities.
Disaster Resistant Communities
We don’t want this to be just another new government program. We want it to be a new idea that will capture the imagination of communities across the country. We want cities and suburbs and small towns to adopt this idea as their own– to implement it in their own ways– and do what works best to reduce the human and property losses caused by disasters.
Currently, we are working with seven communities in various locations across the country as part of the pilot phase of this initiative.
The concept is simple, help communities come together to identify the dangers they face, from floods to hurricanes to earthquakes, then determine how to reduce those risks. The next step is to chart a course to complete what must be done, to take what we call the mitigation action to diminish those dangers and protect the community.
There are four fundamental principles associated with this concept:
1. Communities must build a partnership of all elements of the community that can work together towards the common goal of saving lives and protecting property.
2. Communities must undertake a program of risk identification so that they clearly know the magnitude and types of threats that are faced every day.
3. Communities must identify what they are going to do to mitigate against and prepare for these threats and lay out a program to address these issues.
4. Finally, communities must get support to initiate these programs from all segments of their population.
Building the partnership within the community is simply common sense. We can accomplish much more together than we can independently and, more importantly, we foster a sense of ownership over our commitment to saving lives and protecting property.
Working together as a community means that we can expand the message of preparedness, and the critical need for mitigation, through a much broader spectrum of the population and achieve a greater consensus on the need for them.
Risk identification is a critical part of this process. Many communities are simply unaware of the full range of threats that they face on a day-to-day basis. Until they identify them and recognize that seriousness of their potential impact, it is impossible to develop effective preparedness and mitigation programs to defend against them.
Even those communities that may have a general idea of their risks must undertake risk identification to clarify the full range of threats and ensure that they are encompassing all the various possibilities that could impact the community.
Once the communities have developed the partnership of all elements of the elements necessary for this process, and completed their risk assessment, they are ready to do the next part of the process – developing a plan for achieving their mitigation and preparedness programs. That’s not easy – it involves making many hard decisions and making many difficult choices between different services or programs that must be delivered despite limited resources.
On the other hand, without an effective plan, they can never hope to achieve the level of protection that is essential to every community. And, it’s also very important that they have a plan that can be presented to all the members of the partnership, as well as the community at large, to show the objective and the achievement of the ultimate goal – disaster resistant communities.
Obtaining support for the plan is also difficult, but it can be made much simpler with the combined efforts of the partnership. And, I want to emphasize here that a close and effective working relationship between the community and business and industry is absolutely critical to the success of this process.
Business and Industry Support
Business and industry are vital members of every community’s base. Business and industry provide jobs for countless citizens, the goods and services that citizens rely on for day-to-day life, sponsor many sports and recreational activities or facilities, generate fund-raising for community projects. They are, in fact, the very lifeblood of a community.
But it is more than that. Business and industry suffer calamitous losses in disasters the same as homeowners and the public sector. They sustain tremendous losses in productivity, diminished goods and services for the community, and lost earnings. In many cases, some businesses and industries simply can’t sustain the magnitude of the losses and go out of business – a tremendous loss for a community that may rely on them as a central part of the tax base.
Part of what we’re trying to address in the Disaster Resistant Communities process is bringing business and industry into this partnership – not just as a vital member but, more importantly, to work with business and industry to establish some common denominators for their protection, the protection of their employees, and increased involvement in the community.
There are three central elements to this process:
1. It is critical that business and industry understand the need to protect themselves. This process is made much easier once risk identification has been conducted because they can then target specific threats that could have a significant impact.
I’d like to give you an outstanding example of two companies that have done just that – identified the risk, the magnitude of the risk, and taken action to prepare for and mitigate against it.
Anheuser Busch recognized that its Los Angeles facility was vulnerable to the possibility of substantial damage if an earthquake struck the area. The company retrofitted its facility before the Northridge earthquake and saved an estimated $300 million in damages. But the savings in damages were also paralleled by the savings in jobs and livelihood for employees – members of the community who had lost so much themselves, but who at least had a job to return to and a steady income to rely on.
Warner Brothers Studios in California invested $100 thousand in mitigation programs for fastening equipment prior to the Northridge earthquake. These actions resulted in savings to the company of $1.2 million in loss.
These are some out-standing models for industries that need to take measures to protect themselves.
2. The second element is for business and industry to take care of their employees – they need to provide them with information on how to protect their homes and their families and the appropriate steps to take if disaster strikes.
Chevron in the San Francisco Bay Area is doing an incredible job of exactly that – helping employees prepare for disaster events, educating them on what to do at home and with their families, providing systems that can help them during times of disaster.
Chevron is making an outstanding contribution to the community through this process and is a classic example of an industry that is “getting involved with the community.” That’s the third critical element of this process – getting business and industry involved with the community for the common good.
3. The third element is for business and industry to be involved in the community in disaster preparedness and mitigation efforts.
The example that I’d like to share with you once again involves Warner Brothers Studios in California, but it is an interesting combination of a business that has taken steps to protect itself against losses, as I mentioned previously, as well as expanding its mitigation program in the company and reaching out to share lessons learned with the community.
Warner Brothers has actually created an Office of Emergency Services at its Burbank headquarters which is responsible for all Warner Brothers’ locations in California. The studio’s comprehensive emergency management program consists of four components: preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.
The studio has paid particular attention to a new mitigation strategy for their property warehouses by creating “Safe Zones” in the stacks of shelving systems. These are specially reinforced areas for employees to “dive” into during an earthquake. Equipped with a fire extinguisher, chemical light sticks and first aid supplies, these “Safe Zones” hold two people and are located frequently throughout the shelving system.
Warner Brothers expanded the concept of mitigation within the studio complexes to include working with local businesses and community offices. Their interaction with the community has resulted in their receiving an award for their work with the City of Burbank and West Hollywood.
How Business Can Support Disaster Resistant Communities
There are many actions the business community can be take to support the Disaster Resistant Communities.
We are urging people to participate in the pilot phase of this initiative. We will soon release the names of the seven communities where the pilot phase will be conducted and we are seeking the involvement of all segments of the community, business and industry, and other resources in making these pilots successful.
FEMA is sponsoring community volunteer programs designed to protect individuals and community facilities from disasters. FEMA is currently working with the Corporation for National Service (AMERICORPS) to develop a volunteer based program that would offer our young people an opportunity to give back to their community. The basic premise behind this idea is that high school juniors and seniors would, with supervision from FEMA employees volunteering their time, use their annual Spring Break to conduct minor structural and non-structural mitigation actions in the homes of the elderly and disabled and in community facilities such as day care centers. There is a major benefit in this type of effort – work is being done and young people come away with a sense of value associated to mitigation programs.
FEMA is producing a How-To guidebook as part of the Disaster Resistant Communities initiative that will be very helpful in allowing people to achieve some of these goals and objectives. This guidebook will outline the steps communities can take to form the partnerships needed to fully assess a community’s risks, identify what to do to mitigate these risks and set a course to take the actions needed to make communities more disaster resistant.
A list of possible actions the business community can take to support Disaster Resistant Communities is presented in the accompanying box.
We need to get people accustomed to the idea of incorporating the principle of disaster prevention and mitigation into everyday operations and decision-making processes. Promoting the theme of preparedness and protection against disasters is a valuable message for people to incorporate into their workplaces and community actions.
At FEMA, we are ready to offer assistance in every way; but communities must take the first step and then follow through.
We know from experience what can happen if we don’t focus on the threats that face us – the magnitude of our losses in recent years is a clear example of that.
It’s now time for us to focus on what can be done to lessen the impact of those losses, to work within our communities to focus attention on preparedness and mitigation, to foster public support for these programs, and to make them a part of our day-to-day lives.
More information is available regarding FEMA at their website: www.FEMA.gov
This article adapted from Vol. 10#4.
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