Senator Tim Hutchinson
Opening Statement Before the Senate EPW Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, and Nuclear Safety
FEMA Hearing,
July 23, 1998

Thanks, Mr. Chairman.

I truly appreciate the opportunity today to participate in this hearing. I appreciate the hard work of the Chairman and Senator Graham to produce legislation that continues Project Impact, which will continue to prepare communities to mitigate damages from natural disasters. It is also good to see my good friend, James Lee Witt, a fellow Arkansan and director of FEMA, who will testify today on the effectiveness and necessity of Project Impact.

Let me first take a second and heap a little praise on Director Witt, who took over FEMA five years ago and has made it a very respected organization. Prior to his arrival, FEMA was rivaled probably only by the IRS as the most disliked federal agency. I understand that wearing any clothing that identified a person as representing FEMA was a dangerous thing to do only a few years ago. I know one of James Lee's goals was to have requests for FEMA hats and tee-shirts and I have heard rumors that your efforts have paid off and people actually are requesting these items.

Last year when tornadoes ripped through Arkansas, FEMA's reaction was outstanding. People were receiving checks within days of the disaster. At times, it is difficult to identify owners of property, because of handshake sales, yet, to my knowledge, there was little or no complaint in the filling of requests. This is an outstanding turnaround for a very important agency.

Today we are considering the direction of Project Impact, I think the most important mission of FEMA. In eastern Arkansas, we have one of the largest faults in the country which has the potential of destroying nearly everything in its path. Because there has been such little activity along the fault the last 150 years, we are faced with a huge problem. First, we have a huge fault with huge destructive potential that has laid virtually dormant for such a long period that when it does finally break, the destruction could be beyond our imagination. And, second, unlike California which has been hit with earthquakes continually for years, those along the fault have made very little preparation for seismic activities. If a earthquake were to hit right now, there would be no bridge across the Mississippi from St. Louis all the way to the southern Arkansas, near Louisiana. Memphis would virtually be destroyed, as would most of eastern Arkansas.

So with these concerns, as well as the yearly threat of tornadoes, preparation for disasters is of paramount importance. I want to make my strong support for Project Impact very clear and I sincerely appreciate the work on this bill to reauthorize this program for another five years. We need to be very careful, however with the sunset of this program. I don't oppose what is in the bill, because I think it is important to look at this program in a few years to reconsider the direction. I completely agree with Senator Inhofe with his statement that we don't know how this program should look in five years, but I want to make sure that we do not leave the impression that this program will unequivocally end in five years. We definitely need to look at its direction in the future and I have no problem with the sunset, because that will force Congress to consider the reports from FEMA and GAO to determine the best route of the program. I don't want another wasteful federal program that could be better suited for the states and if that is the recommendation, then so be it, but we need to be careful not to legislatively end such an important program accidently. I don't think that is the intent of the Chairman, but I want to be comfortable with this assurance.

Again, I thank the Chairman and ranking member and look forward to working on this reauthorization this year.