U.S. Senator Bob Graham
Opening Statement on Draft Discussion Bill to Amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act
Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property, and Nuclear Safety
Committee on Environment and Public Works
July 23, 1998

Chairman Inhofe and members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to join with you today to hear testimony on a very important matter, disaster mitigation and the Senate's role in encouraging mitigation. Since the outset of this year, I have been working closely with Senator Inhofe to develop bipartisan legislation to more comprehensively address the threats we face from disasters of all types. The bill is composed of two (2) titles: (1 ) Title I seeks to reduce the impact of disasters by authorizing a "pre-disaster mitigation" program; (2) Title II seeks to streamline the current disaster assistance programs to save administrative costs and to simplify the program for grant recipients. Our witnesses have reviewed the initial draft of this legislation, and come before us today to offer their comments and suggestions to improve upon our efforts to better control both the impact and the costs of disasters.

We will also hear details about the strategies that are being pursued at the federal, state and local levels to protect our nation against the effects of all types of disasters. Again, I believe this to be a critically important issue, both to my constituents in Florida and to high- risk areas throughout the nation, and I am looking forward to the testimony of our witnesses.

Our first witness today will be the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), James Lee Witt. I am particularly familiar with the actions of Director Witt and FEMA this year, because Florida has experienced an unprecedented number of natural disasters throughout the State. In February of this year, forty-two (42) lives were lost in Central Florida as a result of the widespread destruction caused by severe storms and tornadoes. These tornadoes were followed by statewide floods, when many rivers reached record flood levels, and remained at flood level for several weeks. Over the past two (2) months, Florida has been ravaged by statewide forest fires that were only recently contained to a manageable level.

In each of these situations, FEMA mobilized quickly, in cooperation with the state and affected local governments, to provide residents and governments with the assistance they need to respond to and recover from the effects of these disasters. Today, when the President issues a major disaster declaration, the people of Florida feel a sense of relief and comfort, knowing that FEMA, and Director James Lee Witt, will soon arrive to carry them through towards recovery.

Mr. Chairman, this feeling of relief represents a 180 degree turnaround from the feelings that FEMA used to engender in the State of Florida. As we all well remember, FEMA's actions following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, were less than expected. However, following the Andrew experience, and at the request of many Senators in this chamber, FEMA developed more effective and efficient methods of both protecting the population before disasters, and responding to disasters after they occur.

Under the leadership of Director James Lee Witt--whom I believe was one of President Clinton's best appointments--FEMA has changed their way of doing business. In the past five years, FEMA has become more responsive to disaster victims and state and local governments, and has "reinvented" itself by choosing to focus its energy on mitigating, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from the effects of natural hazards.

Today we will hear more about this reinvention--at all levels of government--in terms of preventing the effects of disasters before they occur. The draft bill that we will discuss today seeks to refocus the energies of federal, state and local governments on mitigation, and will shift our efforts to preventative--rather than responsive--actions in planning for disasters. Such a change in ideology is critical to reducing the short- and long-term costs of natural disasters. We must seek to encourage both the public and the private sector--as well as individual citizens--to take responsibility for the threats they face by adopting the concept of disaster mitigation into their everyday lives. Just like energy conservation, recycling, and the widespread use of seat belts, disaster mitigation should become a concept that all citizens incorporate into their day-to-day lives.

FEMA has taken an important first step in this process by establishing "Project Impact," their new mitigation initiative, in local communities throughout the nation. I am proud to say that Deerfield Beach, Florida, was the first community to be chosen as a participant in Project Impact. I am certain that the leadership of Joe Myers, Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management--who will also be testifying today--was an important factor in FEMA's choice of Deerfield Beach. As we conduct this hearing, I will be interested to hear: (1 ) how this initiative has been implemented to date; (2) what actions are being taken at the state and local levels to encourage mitigation; (3) what partnership role is being taken by the private sector; and finally, (4) what legislative initiatives the Senate should pursue to ensure that Project Impact is fully successful.

Once again Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing, and I look forward to the testimony of our witnesses, and working with you to move this legislation forward.