Testimony of James L. Witt
Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety
July 23, 1998

Good morning Mr.Chairman, Senator Graham and members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to be here before you today, and for the chance to express my appreciation for the support Congress has continued to provide FEMA.

As we meet here today, FEMA staff, both full-time and reservists, are spread out across the country working with communities to help them respond to the losses and the misery that natural disasters leave in their wake. Whether it is the fires in Florida and Texas, the tornadoes that spun across the south and Midwest last spring, or the recent flooding in New England, all of these events have a tragic common denominator; a loss not only of lives and property, but hope as well.

What makes me proud of our efforts at FEMA is that the assistance we deliver is a message to all of these different areas that the nation cares about what has happened to them and wants to help. It is very important to remember that when we declare a disaster it is based on a stipulation from the State that the situation is beyond their capacity to respond. At that point, the help we deliver is making a difference in removing not just wreckage and debris, but removing doubts about a community's ability to recovery and prosper in the future.

The future of emergency management, and FEMA's role in that future is a great part of what I want to talk about today. I have been blessed to serve a President who cares deeply about the affect disasters have on our people and their communities, as well as a Congress that has recognized and supported our efforts. And I am equally pleased to serve at an Agency that makes a big difference in peoples lives.

Our staff works very hard. But we are also fortunate because we get to work as partners with some of the best people in the country; the public safety forces, the emergency managers, the floodplain managers, the private relief organizations that help out during disasters, and the local people in communities that are forced to respond under the most pressing circumstances.

During my time at FEMA I have had the good fortune to meet many of these outstanding people across the country. I have met brave people determined to rebuild their homes and their communities and really giving people that always think of others first - whether its school children or the elderly - and how they can be helped after a disaster. We should celebrate the spirit of these people - they are an inspiration to all of us.

But, starting today, I hope you'll join me in meeting these people before disasters occur. Through Project Impact, our pre-disaster mitigation program, we have begun to harness these energies and make meaningful changes in communities to lessen the effects of disaster.

Hope doesn't have to follow a tragedy - hope can be there in the early steps we take to make our schools and businesses and homes safer and stronger.

In that light, this is an historic hearing since your legislation provides increased legislative authority for pre-disaster mitigation. And that fact marks an important new phase in the evolution of emergency management. We appreciate the fact that the Senate's Draft Bill is authorizing this program and hope that the funding levels can match the real threats we face. The Administration has proposed an open-ended authorization, and the President's FY 1999 Budget included a request of $50 million for this program. We believe that these levels will increase the actual awareness and implementation of mitigation measures.

This needs to be a program that is flexible enough to fit the varying needs of a lot of different communities facing different threats. However, to be successful, this program needs to inspire confidence in FEMA's ability to be a steady and dependable partner with the business community. An authorization that decreases over time puts our commitment into question and decreases our capacity to reach out to many more communities across the country that face real risks of disaster damage and want to be a part of this new partnership.

Over the last five years we have instituted a lot of changes at FEMA. Not change just for the sake of change, but changes that have both reduced the risk of future disasters and improved the delivery of assistance to disaster victims while cutting down on our administrative costs to provide that help. At every step of that process we have worked closely with our State emergency management partners, as well as the involved Committees of Congress, to improve both our disaster response and recovery programs and the efforts we are making to mitigate against the need for those programs.

I would now like to review some of the changes we've made in our mitigation and disaster response and recovery programs and the difference those changes have made. In that discussion we will also comment on the provisions in the Senate's Draft Bill that affect these programs and provide our comments on those suggested changes.


While I am proud of the way we have improved our programs, in both speed and quality of service, it is also very important to remember that we have also greatly improved our accountability for the funds that are spent for disaster relief. But we have to do more.

We've got to change the way we deal with disasters or we are doomed to pay for poor planning in lost lives and lost property, over and over and over again. We must put an end to the damage, repair, damage and repair cycle. The most effective way to break this cycle and reduce the cost of disasters is by preventing them through mitigation. Money spent now on mitigation - either pre- or post-disaster - will be reflected in future budget requests and appropriations actions.

Mitigation is the cornerstone of emergency management. It involves keeping homes away from floodplains, engineering bridges to withstand earthquakes, and promoting adoption and enforcement of effective building codes to protect property and people from natural hazards. Mitigation describes the ongoing effort at the Federal, State, local, and individual levels to lessen the impact of disasters upon our families, homes, communities and economy. Mitigation should be viewed as the fundamental means to decrease demands for disaster response resources.

FEMA started emphasizing mitigation in 1993 with the creation of the Agency's Mitigation Directorate. In the aftermath of the 1993 Midwest Floods, we worked with the Administration and the Congress to initiate a property buyout program that removed over 20,000 properties from the floodplain and returned them to open space land use. In fact, Senator Chafee was one of the leaders in this effort and was instrumental in achieving its passage.

We have placed greater emphasis on rebuilding communities safer and stronger after disaster strikes and on preparing for risk before disaster strikes. We appreciate the work that has been done in the Senate Subcommittee's Draft Bill, which recognizes the contribution mitigation makes to reducing future impacts.

Project Impact Our pre-disaster mitigation initiative, Project Impact, joins the public and private sectors in cities and towns across the nation to build disaster-resistant communities. Project Impact's goal is to change the way America prevents and prepares for disasters. The initiative helps communities protect themselves from the devastating effects of natural disasters by taking actions that dramatically reduce disruption and loss. Project Impact operates on a common-sense damage-reduction approach, basing its work and planning on three simple principles: preventive actions must be decided at the local level; private sector participation is vital; and long-term efforts and investments in prevention measures are essential.

This is government at its best, serving as a catalyst so that people have the resources and know-how to make a difference in their lives and their communities. The private sector is the key in the new way we are looking at this. When we meet with private sector representatives we ask them for three commitments: one, do something to protect your company; two, do something to protect your employees; and three, do something for your community. The response has been wonderfully rewarding.

Building on the pilot program, six weeks ago we launched the initiative nationally by inviting 50 additional localities to become Project Impact communities. There is no doubt that this is a common sense approach for the way America deals with disasters. The incentive is clear: a disaster resistant community is able to bounce back from a natural disaster with far less loss of property and consequently much less cost for repairs. Moreover, the time lost from productive activity is minimized for both businesses and their employees.

As I noted earlier, we would appreciate an authorization for the program similar to the Administration's proposal, which was open-ended. That would send a strong and positive message to the many communities across this country that are anxious to be a part of this new approach. Also, rather than indicating an intent to sunset a program of such promise, I believe we should agree to report to you on the program after the five year period and then have the committee decide what course to take. I believe strongly that the signal we need to send is that we are making a difference with hazard reduction through programs like the buyouts and Project Impact.

We also believe it is important that Pre-Disaster Mitigation be a separate fund within the FEMA budget. A separate fund would allow us to better manage and support the program and the special administrative support it requires, such as travel to disaster-resistant communities to provide technical assistance and support.

Given the level of interest and the number of communities in every State that would like to participate, we think the authorized levels of funding in the Subcommittee's Draft Bill are inadequate to do the necessary work at the local level. By reducing the level of funding each year we send a contradictory message, pointing to a lack of commitment from Federal partners. We would strongly encourage increased funding levels that would reflect a program with increasing participation by the business sector in communities of all sizes in all regions of the country facing many differing hazards.

We also believe that there must be an emphasis on the protection of community infrastructure, which is a strong component of the current program. The more a community does to protect, for example, its water treatment facilities, the sooner that community can bounce back from a disaster event. FEMA enters this program as a partner, and a partner does not dictate choices. But we also want this to be a program dedicated specifically to mitigating against disaster threats, not a block grant for any community project. Also, we believe that the public education activities in the communities need to be a part of the program. Public education is key to informed support and involvement at the local level and we believe the legislation should encourage that work.

Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) Section 404 of the Stafford Act authorizes our Howard Mitigation Grant Program. HMGP enables mitigation measures to be implemented during immediate recovery from a disaster. The program's intent is to reduce the risk of future damage, hardship, loss, and suffering in an area affected by a major disaster, and to ultimately reduce the future needs for Federal disaster assistance by encouraging the building of an environment increasingly resistant to the effects of natural hazards.

Under the HMGP, an amount equal to 15 percent of our total funds spent on a disaster may be spent specifically on hazard mitigation measures. Under the Senate Draft Bill this amount is raised up to 20%. We believe this will have a significant and immediate impact in reducing disaster risks across the nation. This will provide greater resources to FEMA and the States to address repetitive flood loss and to take other mitigation measures such as seismic retrofitting and wind-resistance preventive measures.

In addition to property buyouts, I have some examples of other types of things we've accomplished through this program. We've assisted towns in installing river icejam control structures to reduce downstream flooding. We've elevated buildings to protect them from flooding. We've strengthened structures to withstand seismic activity. We've helped State and local government develop mitigation plans.

The types of activities permitted under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program have made a great impact in areas affected by disasters. Let me give you an example. After the devastating Midwest floods of 1993, we were able to acquire thousands of flood-prone properties and move them out of the floodplain. The land was left in open space use for recreational or wetlands use. Two years later in 1995, when many of the same areas flooded again, the structures did not flood because they were out of harm's way. And emergency funds did not have to be spent protecting those same structures. And disaster funds were not spent repairing homes or rebuilding the infrastructure in this area. These formulations contribute to the great savings that come from mitigation.

Given the demonstrated effectiveness of such mitigation actions, we believe that the President's proposal for Pre-Disaster Mitigation strongly supports our concentration on these efforts. The Subcommittee's Draft marks a departure from old approaches and offers the promise of real reductions, not only in disaster costs but also in the threats to our families and our communities.

However, the provision that totally transfers Section 404 to the States is unnecessary in that many of these changes have already been accomplished and the statutory change may dissolve a needed and logical partnership rather than devolve responsibility.

With mitigation programs maturing and real results based on repetitive disasters coming to light, it is apparent that this is the area in which we need to continue to move forward. This Committee is to be congratulated for recognizing the worth of mitigation in the bill. However, we strongly believe that the Pre-Disaster Mitigation section needs authorized levels which that will send a clear message that we are going to work with many communities to reduce the disaster risks they face.

I would now like to address my comments to our disaster response and recovery programs; the changes we have made and the changes that are proposed in the legislation.


The emphasis we have placed on making help to families and individuals more accessible and delivering that help faster has been a great benefit for the people affected and has also had rewarding results for the Federal government. To speed up service and reduce the administrative costs of registering disaster assistance applicants and processing applications, FEMA consolidated multiple functions previously performed at individual disaster sites or regional of rices. In concert with that activity, FEMA has instituted an automated registration system for disaster victims at the National Teleregistration Centers.

The Teleregistration Centers have resulted in not only making the application process easier for those affected by disasters but have also had a positive impact on customer service. People applying for assistance are helped promptly, get consistent answers, and are treated with respect. Also, the cost savings of on-line processing at a teleregistration center versus processing a paper application at a Disaster Application Center are approximately $46 per application. At an average of 350,000 registrations per year, the annual savings are approximately $16 million.

After registrations are received, processing begins. This used to be a cumbersome process, done on an ad hoc basis and spread out among many field offices and regional offices. FEMA has now established three National Processing Service Centers. The consolidation of services permits FEMA to avoid the time delay and cost of establishing the necessary computer networks in disaster field locations each time there is a disaster.

In addition, we now apply pen-based computer technology to help verify applicants' needs, which allows inspectors to record more rapidly and accurately the damage to homes and personal property. Use of this technology also saves the expense of manual data entry. Centralized processing saves approximately $75 per case over our former field processing. With an average of 300,000 cases processed annually, the savings are about $22.5 million per year.

What is also noteworthy about these improvements is how they have accelerated the provision of aid. The 1-800 number we now employ, coupled with the other changes I have described, has shortened the time needed to deliver financial assistance for FEMA's Temporary Housing program from several weeks to several days.

In fact, the average time it takes from the time a disaster victim calls in to the time that a housing inspector visits and their first temporary housing check is delivered, used to be measured in weeks. It is now about 7 to 10 days. In the near future we will be implementing Electronic Fund Transfer, making it possible for many victims to receive temporary housing funds even quicker.

We have also combined logistical functions into three Territorial Logistics Centers. This means that instead of renting hundreds of warehouses across the country we have three focal points that can support our field activities at a moment's notice. Additionally, we do not re-invent the wheel -- or pay for a new wheel -- with each disaster declaration. Instead we retain our equipment, such as computers and fax machines, refurbish and upgrade the equipment, and send it back out for use in the next disaster.

These changes we have described are relatively new, but they are positive improvements in the way we deliver supplemental disaster assistance. I will now address certain changes to Individual Assistance programs that are contemplated in the Senate's Draft Bill, which we are considering today.

The bill provides for combining the temporary housing and Individual and Family Grants program, now administered separately, into a single program which can address the real and personal property needs of disaster victims, funded at 100% federal share and administered by FEMA. At present the temporary housing program is 100% federally funded and administered by FEMA, but the Individual and Family Grant Program (IFG) is funded 75% by FEMA, 25% by states, and administered by states. We do not object to this provision.

Our specific hope is that we can have a consistent program. Currently several States are able to administer the IFG program effectively while others have a need for more staff and support to handle this occasional function. The proposal would be of great benefit to that second group. From FEMA's standpoint, any change that makes our role more consistent in each disaster would be a help to our staff in delivering good customer service in a cost-effective manner.

Other provisions of the bill addressing the sale of manufactured homes after disasters and the ability to provide more extensive housing programs in remote island locations will help to reduce costs and improve services in those parts of FEMA's jurisdiction in which the standard financial assistance programs are not appropriate.


Public Assistance is our term for Infrastructure repair. FEMA's program to fund the repair or restoration of damaged infrastructure after a disaster is being refined and improved. This improvement will both reduce administrative costs and, more importantly, streamline our processes for our State and local partners.

We've redesigned our Public Assistance program to improve customer service to applicants and increase satisfaction among state and local participants, to expedite the obligation of federal grant money, and to reduce the administrative costs of disaster management. The New Public Assistance program goals are achieved by organizing recovery around the needs of the applicant. The New PA program consists of four principal components:

Process - The process was redesigned from preliminary damage assessment to closeout, resulting in the creation of a partnership among FEMA, State and local participants utilizing the strengths of each.

Policy - Our policy goals are to simplify and clarify policy, make policy information openly available to our customers, and utilize the Internet for policy information distribution

People - New roles and responsibilities were created within the PA work force, as well as a redefinition of existing ones, and training and credentialing will be required.

Performance - Performance measures have been developed to assure compliance with GPRA, and ensure continual program improvement and customer satisfaction.

A pilot test was conducted jointly with the Commonwealth of Kentucky on a presidentially declared disaster from May to July 1998. The pilot provided an opportunity to simulate a full-scale operation of the New PA program in a controlled real-time environment, allowing for the validation and refinement of the new process prior to organization-wide implementation. The pilot confirmed the feasibility of the New PA program, identified key aspects of the redesign that may require change and gauged the organizational inclination to change its culture in support of the new process. The pilot successfully demonstrated the following:

The ability of applicants to formulate eligible scopes of work and cost estimates The value of a single point of coordination to assist applicants The ability to expediently obligate funds to the state and effectively manage quicker grant close-outs The ability to identify and address Hazard Mitigation grant opportunities and other Special Considerations issues early in the process

_ The ability to establish an environment of mutual trust and respect with the Commonwealth and local applicants

Two key observations of the pilot process were -

95% of all projects (403 out of 422 total) were under the $47,100 small project threshold resulting in significant administrative savings by having the applicant, rather than FEMA and State staff, write Damage Survey Reports.

_ 80% of projects were obligated within 60 days, greatly contributing to increased customer satisfaction.

Our Public Assistance Grant Acceleration Program is currently being implemented in the Northridge Long-term Recovery Area Of lice. Under this program, a fixed level of funding is provided to cover the estimated total cost of eligible repair to damaged facilities. Rather than wait until final actual repair costs are determined, settlement offers are made based upon industry standard estimates, bringing administrative closure to long-term projects. This Grant Acceleration Program is the model for the cost-estimating procedure that the Senate's Draft Bill will help us to implement. Thus far, 99 projects have been accepted for a total of $163 million.

We've also redesigned our Public Assistance Program as a whole. The program now focuses on customer service by emphasizing effective partnering among FEMA, State, and local governments. We have worked closely with representatives from State emergency management offices and local officials to ensure that the redesigned program reflects their concerns and needs. The result is a program that focuses on streamlining operations, clarifies program eligibility and policies, simplifies the process, and forges stronger alliances with State and local governments. This helps communities recover from disasters through more efficient and consistent program delivery.

We appreciate some of the provisions in the Draft Bill, such as the cost-estimates provision I noted earlier, that will help us to carry out our new vision for the Public Assistance program. also would support pilot projects that would contribute to further responsible streamlining of Section 406 under which the Public Assistance program operates.

I hope I have been able to give you a better understanding of not only how FEMA regards certain provisions in the Senate Subcommittee's Draft Bill but also, generally, how FEMA has been operating over the last five years. I have highlighted some of the steps we have taken to cut some of those costs, particularly in mitigating against future disasters and their associated costs. These steps are significant and I am especially proud that they have resulted in not just cost reductions, but better service for the people most in need - the disaster victims and communities who have been devastated by disaster events.

Just as with pre-disaster mitigation, this hearing is a good example of how we are able to discuss our emergency management policies outside of the context of an actual disaster event and consider what we can do to reduce the pain and suffering caused by disasters through sound public policy. While we respectfully object to some provisions of the bill you are considering, we also appreciate the careful attention you are giving to the work we do. It matters to millions of Americans and getting it right is important. Any changes we make will be reflected in the depth and quality of not only our response to disasters in the future, but also our ability to reduce their impact on our communities.

I thank you for your time and attention. I deeply appreciate the support you have given me and all of the great FEMA staff since I came into this job. The confidence you have shown in us has helped us do a job that matters to people in great distress. I am happy to answer any questions you might have.