Project Impact worth the cost

Posted: Sunday, March 04, 2001

President Bush's proposal to cut the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Project Impact to save $25 million is penny-wise, but pound-foolish.

It fails to recognize the value of the wisdom found in such adages as "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" and "A stitch in time saves nine."

Prevention and mitigation are the heart of Project Impact, a national initiative that provides seed money to communities to help lessen the effects of disaster. The federal funds are matched with a variety of local contributions.

Ironically, Bush's recommendation was made on the same day that a magnitude 6.8 earthquake shook the Northwest. That's no small shake. Damage estimates have hit $2 billion, and 410 injuries have been linked to the quake -- most of them minor. There was no loss of life attributed to the temblor.

That the damage, injuries and casualty list were not greater is no accident. The region was prepared for disaster. At least part of that preparation can be credited to Project Impact.

In January of 1998, Seattle became part of a seven-city pilot program for Project Impact. Among other things, money from the program was used to retrofit homes to make sure they were structurally sound should an earthquake hit. In schools, overhead hazards such as radiators and flush tanks that are part of older plumbing and heating systems were removed. In addition, computers and filing cabinets were secured with straps so they wouldn't become flying projectiles if the ground started shaking. Money also has been used to map earthquake and landslide hazards using scientific and historical information.

The region was prepared in other ways as well. Most of the area's buildings constructed since the mid-1970s comply with stringent seismic codes, and more than 300 bridges have been firmed up since 1990.

The problem with prevention efforts is it's impossible to say what damage did not occur because of them. How many millions or billions were saved by investing in Project Impact and other mitigation programs -- at a fraction of the cost to fix the damage after it had been done? Was a child's life spared because a filing cabinet didn't tumble down on her? Were there fewer business losses, because owners had taken steps to minimize risks to their employees and their buildings?

In the wake of many disasters, people are left with a string of "if onlys" to regret.

In the wake of the Northwest quake, however, officials and residents are congratulating themselves on a job well done. They were prepared. Seeing the damage the quake caused, they only have to wonder "What if we had not taken these preventive measures? What kind of damages and cleanup would we be facing?"

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has been fortunate to be one of 250 Project Impact communities across the nation. Since the formal kickoff of the peninsula project in July 1999, much has been accomplished. Some of the most visible work has been with the FireWise program, which is designed to educate the public about how to minimize the devastating damage wildfires can cause. Efforts have targeted creating defensible spaces in order to protect homes and businesses. Among other things, Project Impact has spurred retrofits in the public schools of overhead fixtures and computers -- to keep them in place during an earthquake.

Money spent on disaster prevention and mitigation is money well spent -- particularly when you live in a disaster-prone area such as the peninsula, where wildfires, floods, avalanches, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and oil spills are all very real risks. As the disaster experts are fond of saying, "It's not a matter of if disaster will strike, it's a matter of when."

Even without Bush's announcement, funds for the paid coordinator position for Project Impact on the peninsula run out this month; that's because the program is designed to be a community, not government, initiative. The federal seed money was a push in the right direction, not the whole program.

Our hope is the ideals of the program will continue to thrive in the borough's Office of Emergency Management and the Local Emergency Planning Committee, as well as among residents who have the responsibility for educating themselves on what they can and should do to minimize the effects of disaster in their homes and businesses.

It's easy to cut prevention efforts from a budget, since it's hard to put a number on how much savings they ultimately realize. Bush's recommendation is short-sighted. It should be reconsidered with the understanding that "necessity never did make a good bargain."

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