Testimony of Albert Ashwood
Director, Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management
Before the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property, and Nuclear Safety
Committee on Environment and Public Works
July 23, 1998

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for inviting the State of Oklahoma to present testimony before your subcommittee today. We commend you for your ongoing efforts to strengthen and enhance the nation's emergency management system and we look forward to providing any assistance to you for this endeavor. From our position, you subcommittee recognizes that the only way we will truly reduce disaster costs and the significant impacts of disasters on our communities is through mitigation, more specifically, pre-disaster mitigation.

BACKGROUND

The focus of today's hearing is pre-disaster mitigation and the streamlining and cost reduction of the emergency management process. Since 1900, Oklahoma has experienced 17 federally declared disasters, which include 7 fire suppression declarations. Federal, State and local dollars that were used within the State for each of the three recovery programs -- Individual Assistance, Infrastructure and Mitigation -- during this period totals over $80 million. However, an important point to consider here is that this figure represents only the assistance identified as a result of the requirements to track disaster expenditures. Insured losses; uninsured or under-insured losses; unreported labor and construction costs; and other miscellaneous costs would add even more dollars to that total. In addition , in 1994, Oklahoma enacted State Public Assistance (infrastructure) disaster declaration procedures. This legislation provides for public assistance to political subdivisions up to $100,000 per calendar year, per jurisdiction, for nonfederally declared disasters that are declared by the Governor. For this State program, we have expended nearly 3 million dollars of State funds. Our program does not require a local match for these funds. However, in each instance the local damages far exceeded the amount that could be repaired or replaced with funds provided by the State. As you can see, disaster costs, and methods that can be implemented to reduce those costs are very important issues.

THE DISASTER MITIGATION ACT OF 1998

We strongly concur with the intent of the bill as written. Each of us at the federal, state, local and private level should do everything within our means to reduce the costs of disasters before they occur. Title I - Pre-disaster Hazard Mitigation - will assist in the endeavor. We encourage all of our communities to identify and assess their risks; implement measures to reduce disaster losses; and ensure that critical facilities, public infrastructure, and lifelines will continue to function after a disaster. At the same time we are encouraging communities to do this, we are also advocating that the continuance of federal assistance might be in jeopardy unless respective communities start helping themselves first, before a disaster occurs. Please understand that we fully concur with a pre-disaster hazard mitigation program, but we are trying to convince the communities of their responsibilities relative to developing a unified effort through local partnerships, identifying nonfederal resources, and initiating a strong commitment to long-term mitigation projects that can be funded locally. In addition, these local initiatives should be identified in detail in the local all-hazards mitigation plan.

A review of Title I discloses that we may need clarification of the following items:

-- provides the opportunity to fund hazard mitigation measures that the State or local government determines to be necessary.

Providing care to individuals is a paramount concern in any emergency situation. For example, we are currently experiencing drought conditions in Oklahoma, as are other states as well. We have convened the appropriate State Agency Directors, their federal counterparts, volunteer agencies, and private sector businesses, to activate the Oklahoma State Drought Management Plan. This plan focuses on fire suppression, water shortages, heat related problems and agricultural losses. This is a proactive step to protect our Oklahoma citizens. The emergency management process as relates to Individual Assistance is a crucial link in providing food, shelter and life-sustaining services to each Oklahoman. We in Oklahoma learned a very valuable lesson April 19, 1995, and the Oklahoma disaster service community continues to provide essential services to many of those affected by the Murrah Building bombing. From this lesson, we know that early coordination is the key to sustaining a reasonable quality of life for those affected by disasters. We must remember that a disaster does not end when the immediate response is completed. For those affected families, the disaster has only begun.

We concur with state administration of the hazard mitigation assistance program. The wording of the draft bill enables each state to conduct an assessment of its abilities and capabilities to participate as a "managing state", along with the flexibility to participate in the program when the time is right. As defined long-term, each state should strive to become a managing state; however, local capabilities impact on the final decision. We have already participated in some of this coordination, and it would appear to be a seamless process to become a "management state."

We concur in concept with the streamlining of damaged facilities program. Since the program is still under development, we hesitate to concur fully until we have had a chance to review the new program in its entirety. We have been asked from the start of this initiative to review and provide comments relative to development of the program, and it appears that the "new PA Program," currently under development by FEMA will reduce the administrative requirements of the current program, as well as be more responsive to all eligible applicants. Further, I am a member of the National Emergency Management Association Response and Recovery Committee. Be assured that this program is being evaluated thoroughly at that level also. Streamlining the process is long overdue, and we look forward to the new program.

SUMMARY

We in Oklahoma share your concern about the rising costs of disasters. We encourage you to explore all opportunities to initiate cost-reducing measures such as pre-disaster hazard mitigation. Devolving more authority for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and the Public Assistance Program will definitely reduce administrative costs, eliminate duplication and streamline the entire process. The ultimate benefactors will be disaster victims who will receive improved services. Initiatives that you have identified already about a study regarding cost reduction, a study regarding disaster insurance for public infrastructure, and a study regarding declarations will no doubt identify additional areas for consideration.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today, and we look forward to continuing to work with you in the future.