Witt: Nation at increasing risk as disasters, population grow

E. SCHMID

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

Press.

“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

fund.

“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

foundation.

Some communities have passed ordinances blocking development in

wetlands and other dangerous areas, he said, but “we have a long way to

go.”

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

disasters.

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

winds.

Some 200 communities are participating in Project Impact, he said,

developing their own plans and running their own projects.

FEMA provides

$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

parks.

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

approached.

—The agency is urging communities to obtain insurance for

municipal buildings.

—Of all disasters, the nation is still least prepared

for terrorism.

—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.”

—Every

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.

“You

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.

On the

Net:

Federal Emergency Management Agency: http://www.fema.gov

Project

Impact: http://www.fema.gov/impact

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