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After 1996's Hurricane Fran got their attention, Carolina Beach, NC residents Daniel Norris and Chiaki Ito spent $14,000 to elevate their home 14 feet and build in other disaster mitigating home improvements.

Four years later, Hurricane Floyd's flood waters washed into the garage where the first floor used to be, but the specially engineered garage let the water flow through with little damage.

Since Cathy Blair purchased a home on the Edwin B. Forsythe Refuge in Ocean County, NJ, the inevitable storms that ravage the eastern seaboard have convinced her to also elevate her home above flood level, secure outdoor property and keep a supply of plywood precut to fit her windows, according to FEMA. She recalls how an unsecured piling in a hurricane created a deadly fire storm in 1992.

"Someone forget to secure a piling. It went sailing down the creek, hit a couple's propane tank, and they were killed," she said.

More recently, immediately after the Seattle area 6.8 earthquake, FEMA official Cindy Ramsay agreed that Project Impact and its ideals were a major reason damage and injuries were relatively minimal.

"It worked in Seattle," she told the San Jose Mercury News.

Designed to mitigate disaster by planning and acting before trouble hits, FEMA's Project Impact offers a litany of success stories, but the federal agency wasn't extolling its virtues this week.

Ramsay and other officials from FEMA's main and regional office referred media queries to the White House where the life-saving Project Impact faces it's own threat of disaster.

The Bush Administration wants to ax the project.

Ironically, a few hours before the Seattle-area quake was felt as far away as Salt Lake City, President Bush unveiled Blueprint for New Beginnings -- A Responsible Budget for America's Priorities a summary of the administration's proposed budget which includes a call for the end of Project Impact, because, the summary says, it" has not been effective."

Killing the program would save the budget $25 million.

"I would say the Project Impact funding has been used in some cases well and in some cases not as effectively," said Jimmy Orr, a White House spokesman.

"FEMA offered a boy scout training exercise in Delaware, a Boy Scout camp in Puerto Rico, a safety fair in Yuma, Arizona," Orr said.

The aptly numbered Boy Scout Troop 911 in Milford, DE, used FEMA funds for a six-hour training session and mitigation lessons to plot the location of propane and oil tanks in low-level areas to avert the kind of deadly disaster Blair recalled in Ocean County, NJ. The Troupe also plotted which areas of their town were likely to be flooded in a big hurricane, giving residents time to take action.

Yuma, AZ's safety fair was the city's first ever when 200 residents learned how to make the food component of a disaster survival kit by cooking at home, by using gardening, by canning food, and by preserving bread. Officials provided first aid, CPR and fire, natural gas and electrical safety lessons.

Disaster preparedness and hurricane mitigation-trained Boy Scouts in Culebra, Puerto Rico -- where hurricanes are an unfortunate way of life -- went door-to-door across the eastern side of the island providing hurricane awareness and prevention information materials, consultation and advice to residents.

Orr also said the administration wants to cut Project Impact because it's funds aren't used quickly and there may be faster ways to implement mitigation programs. The summary budget proposal does not outline them. More than half, 64 percent of Project Impact funds sit idle for two years following receipt by a community or organization, according to Orr.

"Project Impact communities are not spending their allocations in a timely manner and that would indicate federal funds are not needed or communities are ill equipped to use them," Orr says.

Some of the lag time between FEMA grants and actually implementing Project Impact programs is actually part of the program. Communities are required to first determine the most effective way to use the money and then must find a level of matching funds, says Renee Domingo, assistant emergency services director of Oakland, CA.

The city of Oakland took time to leverage their $1 million FEMA grant into $4 million.

"If they want to call that sitting on it, it was worth sitting on it," Domingo said.

Since 1998, the city's version of Project Impact has served 500 households a variety of ways. The money has been used for a seismic retrofitting grant program for older residents and home owners with disabilities, to publish a homeowner's retrofitting guide, to open and operate a tool lending library and to run a program of volunteers performing nonstructural retrofitting work, including strapping down water heaters and installing smoke detectors.

"We rented out the tools at no cost for home owners who wanted to do the work. Some of those tools are pretty specialized and expensive. The volunteer program cost $10,000, but it would cost $150,000 to $200,000 if you had to go out and hire contractors to do the work," Domingo said.

Seattle also is one of 250 Project Impact communities and when the Seattle area quake began rattling the city, government officials had gathered to celebrate the third anniversary of the Phinney Neighborhood Center. The 86-year-old brick school had been transformed into a recreation center and retrofitted to survive earthquakes. To the tune of $1 million, Project Impact has helped retrofit all of Seattle's school buildings and some bridges and it trained more than 1,500 homeowners how to seismically strengthen their homes.

Since 1997, along with the hundreds of community partners, 2,500 business partners have participated in Project Impact efforts. Instead of waiting for disasters to occur, Project Impact encourages communities to develop disaster mitigation projects, plans and programs to reduce damage from potentially devastating disasters. Homeowners receive education and low-cost financing assistance and grants to help them mitigate property damage and destruction which, in turn, can help save lives.

"You don't wait until your house is on fire before you buy a fire extinguisher," Blair said.

Additional Bush administration budget plans for FEMA include:

  • Reforms to the disaster relief program by implementing a public building insurance requirement and reducing the Federal share for hazard mitigation grants, saving $166 million
  • Maintaining funding at $140 million for the Emergency Food and shelter Program, administered by a board of charitable, non-profit, and faith-based organizations.
  • Phasing out an unneeded fire grant program, saving $100 million.
  • Reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program, saving $12 million.

The proposed budget would eliminate flood insurance coverage for properties in areas threatened by repetitive losses, while pulling the mitigation rug out from under them by not funding Project Impact, a program that could help some of those properties prevent future insurance losses.

"These properties are located in the flood plain and are flooded regularly, but are not required to pay risk-based premiums. As a result,they have been rebuilt multiple times with the subsidized support other flood insurance policy holders and U.S. taxpayers," the proposed budget says.

To save another $12 million, the budget proposal also calls for higher flood insurance rates for vacation homes, rental properties and other non-primary residences and businesses. Plans to reestablish the definition of a disaster could also lead to a reduction in disaster assistance grants to home owners and businesses trying to recover from disasters.

"Without clear and consistent rules for Federal intervention and assistance following disasters, festoon runs the risk of rewarding some states that do not need assistance while ignoring the legitimate needs of others," the summary budget proposal says.

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