Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Natural disasters
are getting more frequent and more severe, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Director James Lee Witt said Tuesday, preaching a gospel of preparation and
prevention for Americans.
“Tornado activity, we see now, normally starts in
the spring of the year, starting in January. Hurricane seasons seem like
they’re much more intense,” Witt told editors and reporters of The Associated
“We will see,” he said, from “what the scientists tell us, some
extremely devastating events in the 21st century.”
Faced with a proposed
budget of $300 million for a disaster fund, Witt said his agency studied its
disaster costs over the previous five years and found the average was $2.9
billion annually. That’s now the size of FEMA’s disaster contingency
“We are trying to change the landscape of America … to make our
communities more disaster resistant,” said Witt, who recalled being in his
family home at age six when a tornado moved the building off its
Some communities have passed ordinances blocking development in
wetlands and other dangerous areas, he said, but “we have a long way to
Expanded construction of homes and businesses to accommodate a growing
population often impedes natural protections against flooding — paving over
open spaces and cutting down forests.
Witt cited Project Impact and FEMA’s
buyout and relocation programs as major efforts in preventing future losses in
The buyout and relocation program launched in 1993 moves people
away from dangerous areas, especially flood plains, and turns that land into
parks that cannot be built on in the future.
Project Impact, just two years
old, has become active in both hurricane- and tornado-prone areas, providing
builders and homeowners with plans and assistance in making homes and buildings
more resistant to disasters.
Coastal residents are encouraged to raise
their homes up on stilts so storm surge waters can pass beneath them, while
concrete or steel safe rooms can be added to homes facing severe
Some 200 communities are participating in Project Impact, he said,
developing their own plans and running their own projects.
$300,000 in seed money to each community and helps them organize public-private
partnerships, with businesses contributing about $4.50 for every federal dollar
involved, he said.
One developer in Tulsa, Okla., he recalled, offered
tornado-safe rooms as part of new homes, and nine of the first ten buyers opted
to pay the extra $2,500 for the room — which can also be used as a closet,
bathroom or vault when not needed for safety. The tenth couple, he said, were
75 years old and opted for a hot tub instead.
While the safe rooms are
difficult to add to mobile homes, he said, communities are being encouraged to
put shelters in schools or build community safe rooms in mobile home
Studies have shown that the eye of a tornado is much smaller than
the damage path and homes strengthened to resist wind that are on the fringes
of the tornado path will survive.
Witt also said:
—He will leave a
memo to the next administration urging that his agency be kept at its informal
current Cabinet-level status or even be made an official part of the Cabinet to
improve coordination with other parts of the government.
—FEMA has worked
with the Transportation Department and governors of Southeastern states on ways
to avoid a traffic gridlock like the one last year when 2 million residents of
several states tried to evacuate at the same time as Hurricane Floyd
—The agency is urging communities to obtain insurance for
—Of all disasters, the nation is still least prepared
—The National Weather Service has done a good job in
increasing tornado warning times. There was a 37-minute warning in last year’s
Oklahoma City tornadoes, he said, “which helped a great deal.”
state must have and enforce a statewide building code to strengthen homes for
wind and other hazards.
—FEMA encountered no hostility from residents of
Los Alamos, N.M., after fires started by the National Park Service damaged many
homes. He praised Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for moving quickly to take
responsibility for the fire.
He said his agency plans to set up about 300
prefab homes for people displaced by that fire, and expects these homes will be
needed for at least a year.
Witt said he can identify with the residents of
Los Alamos, recalling that his family home burned down when he was 13.
lose so much, whether it’s a fire or earthquake … you lose so many mementoes,
you lose so much of your family history. It never can be replaced. That’s why
I’m so focused on the prevention, because I know we can save lives and we can
save property if we do it right,” he concluded.
Federal Emergency Management Agency: http://www.fema.gov