Project Impact slows as grant ends

FireWise, earthquake preparations among top accomplishments

Posted: Tuesday, March 06, 2001

Light fixtures rained like bombs on Bill Gates' audience during the recent Seattle earthquake, but the next big Alaska quake should produce no such missiles in central Kenai Peninsula schools.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough spent $45,000 in federal Project Impact disaster mitigation funds to strap in hanging light fixtures against earthquakes at a dozen public schools from Tustumena Elementary to Kenai Central High School.

Maintenance workers hope to strap lights in North Star and Nikiski elementary schools before the borough's Project Impact grant runs out March 31, said Kathy Flynn, the borough's Project Impact coordinator.

The borough also spent nearly $15,000 for straps to tie down 3,500 new school computers. The majority will be fastened next summer, she said.

Flynn counted earthquake preparations in the schools and the borough participation in the FireWise Community Action Program -- which teaches how to clear defensible space and otherwise make homes easier to defend from wildfires -- as the greatest achievements from the $300,000 Project Impact grant.

The borough matched the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant with $145,000 in cash and in-kind donations from the community. The state contributed $19,000.

"I guess I can just walk away from here knowing that kids are a little safer, and teachers are a little safer, and hopefully families are a little safer -- those who have chosen to implement defensible space and participate in disaster mitigation and planning for their families," Flynn said.

There is no question that preparedness pays, said Theresa Salmon, special projects administrator for Seattle Public Schools, which received $400,000 in Project Impact funds to secure overhead lighting and attic water tanks, remove overhead porcelain tanks from restrooms, install automatic natural gas shutoff valves and fasten book shelves and filing cabinets against earthquakes.

While the Seattle earthquake caused more than 400 injuries, none were in Seattle schools, she said. No filing cabinets fell, and no book cases came off the walls.

"We had a lot of ceiling tiles fall. In one classroom, we had some lights come down. We hadn't done that school yet. The kids were under their desks," she said. "There's a lot more to do. This was just a wake-up call, but the resources will come. We have the backing of the district."

Flynn said a big problem after a quake is determining whether buildings are safe to reenter. The borough's Project Impact program brought Vince McCoy, disaster assessment officer for the building safety division of the municipality of Anchorage, to teach school custodians, local government officials, architects and engineers how to assess building damage.

Project Impact and the city of Soldotna sponsored a workshop on earthquake-resistant design, and Project Impact sponsored training on pre-disaster inspection of public facilities.

Project Impact also used Alaska Military Youth Academy cadets for a demonstration project to strap down water heaters in the homes of more than a dozen central peninsula senior citizens, Flynn said.

It spent about $22,000 to design and build a floor-to-ceiling disaster mitigation display for use at conventions and trade shows. It will spend $34,000 in a model project to install plastic film on the windows of Homer schools to prevent them from shattering during an earthquake.

It is donating $16,000 to buy additional air time for American Red Cross television spots on preparation against earthquakes and floods. It will contribute $57,500 to the city of Seward for a $90,000 project to raise the generator and pump at a lift station for the city sewer system beyond the reach of floodwaters from Lowell Creek. Flooding now renders the lift station inoperable during heavy rains and snowmelt, putting the entire sewage treatment system at risk, she said.

"With all of our projects, we hoped to inspire future borough spending to improve the safety of public buildings," Flynn said. "We tried to give them enough information so that the things that could be done for little or no cost, such as public information, could be done, and we tried to demonstrate what could be done for public buildings. But I think it's going to come down to dollars and setting priorities for dollars."

The lights in more than half of the Kenai Peninsula Borough school buildings remain to be strapped against earthquakes. Don McCloud, borough maintenance director, said he had hoped for $50,000 for the work in the coming budget. However, there were too many other priorities, from asbestos abatement to Americans with Disabilities Act improvements, and the money is no longer in the developing budget, he said.

Borough assembly member Bill Popp said Mayor Dale Bagley has not yet sent the budget to the assembly. However, if it does not include money to strap school light fixtures, Popp said, he will move to put that money in it.

"I think it's money well spent," he said. "It's going to mitigate injuries and damage in the event of an earthquake. Anyone who thinks we're not going to have an earthquake is pretty foolish."

Popp said he is disappointed in President George W. Bush's proposal to save the federal government $25 million by eliminating the Project Impact program. Project Impact certainly helped minimize damage and injuries in the Seattle quake, he said.

"For the small amount of money, it is a great success."

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