Thank you for allowing the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) the opportunity to provide comments on the proposed "Disaster Mitigation Act of 1998." NEMA represents state and territorial emergency management directors who are responsible to their governors for developing and maintaining an integrated and responsive emergency management system.
My name is Joseph F. Myers. I am the director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management. For the past two years, I have had the pleasure to serve as Chairman of NEMA's Mitigation Committee. It has been NEMA's contention that the most effective way to reduce our nation's vulnerability to the impacts of disasters is through the application of mitigation programs while maintaining an effective preparedness capability. We believe the proposed legislation supports this shared goal of reducing our nations vulnerability to disasters and the costs in lost lives and property.
First, let me commend this committee for taking the time to hold hearings on this very important topic. Revising the Stafford Act to address pre-disaster mitigation, streamline assistance and reduce costs is very important to every state in this nation. It is particularly appropriate to consider such changes in the authorizing committee, where those who have the ability to consider issues of this magnitude can reflect upon the far reaching impacts these changes will have on the entire emergency management community, with its many varied but related federal and state programs and stakeholders.
This bill properly focuses our collective efforts toward a sustainable system of managing disasters and their consequences. This bill prioritizes the use of our resources and recognizes the critical importance of breaking an ever more expensive cycle of destruction and rebuilding. We should become focused on creating sustainable communities, able to reduce the impacts of disasters, thereby reducing our dependence on federal, state, and local recovery dollars. This legislation is an important milestone in the effort to modify the built environment and ensure both pro- and post disaster construction and development practices that will survive disasters. This legislation dovetails with our emphasis on streamlining current assistance programs, expediting the recovery of those who need it most, the victims.
NEMA applauds the Federal Emergency Management Agency for their aggressive efforts to improve our nations' emergency management system. Under the leadership of Director James Lee Witt, FEMA has worked hard in partnership with NEMA on several new initiatives that, given time, will radically improve our emergency management system. Focused efforts to close out old disasters; implementing the Public Assistance streamlining initiative; and, designating capable states to become "Mitigation Management States," to reduce costs and streamline the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, are just some of Director Witt's innovations. Each of these initiatives have already had dramatic, and positive impacts on state and local emergency management agencies.
NEMA and FEMA have worked in tandem on initiatives to cut disaster related costs. NEMA and FEMA have addressed many proposals and working together, we believe that mutually agreeable solutions can be found. At a recent meeting with Director Witt, the NEMA leadership committed to work in partnership with FEMA to develop fair and objective disaster declaration criteria, a Congressional concern for many years. Declaration criteria will help state emergency management agencies know, before a disaster strikes, the necessary thresholds that trigger a major disaster declaration. This knowledge will save time, minimize false expectations, and ensure equity in declaration decisions.
Overall, our impression of the proposed "Disaster Mitigation Act of 1998" is very favorable. We believe, if passed, it will have a beneficial impact on reducing the spiraling costs of disasters. Both NEMA and FEMA have emphasized the importance of initiating pre-disaster mitigation efforts as a powerful way to reduce our increasing vulnerability to natural and non~ natural disasters. The bill will also streamline components of the Public and Individual Assistance Programs and reduce the costs of these programs.
More specifically, we agree with the concept underlying Section 101. The emergency management community must institutionalize the focus on mitigation if we are to reverse the escalating costs of disasters. Without effective mitigation at both the federal, state and local level we will be kept in a cycle of repetitive losses, which disrupt lives and destroys property. At the same time we must be consolidate and continue to improve on our preparedness and response initiatives.
While we applaud the efforts to engage the states in the selection of those communities who will benefit from the pre-disaster mitigation funding, we realize the President will ultimately determine which of these communities will be selected. We encourage the Committee to revise the selection process to be a shared responsibility of the President and the Governors of each state. This will ensure that the selection process will benefit from the unique insights of the Governors, and enhance the "partnership" concept between the federal government, each state, and each eligible community.
A five-year commitment of significant funding to this mitigation effort is equally appreciated. If mitigation is going to have a real impact on cost reduction, we must take the initiative to fund it at levels that will ensure success. Therefore, we recommend that the level of funding remain, at a minimum, consistent with the first year's allocation of $50 million, and not decrease each succeeding year. This will ensure a sustained and strategic effort into the new millennium.
In Section 107, we applaud increasing the contribution for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program from the current fifteen percent, to the proposed twenty percent. This will provide more funds to local and state applicants for mitigation projects, and reduce disaster costs by reducing the risk of loss of lives and property.
Replacement of the sliding scale for "associated costs" in the public assistance program, with the more equitable "management costs," as defined in Section 201 will reduce the burden of determining these costs, and expedite the overall public assistance program at the state level. This will result in a more reasonable and understandable process for all parties and creates an incentive for progress to closure of disasters.
In Section 202, we appreciate the added incentive found in Subsection (3) which will encourage eligible applicants who want to undertake an alternate project that will mitigate future disaster damages. Allowing for ninety percent federal contribution toward alternate infrastructure projects is an incentive for good decisions, and at the same time, reduces future costs by encouraging facility owners to move away from high risk areas.
Using the "estimate of eligible costs" will dramatically expedite the public assistance process and implement the concepts found in FEMA's Public Assistance streamlining initiative. However, we recommend that the spread between under/over estimating be tightened from the proposed eighty percent - one hundred twenty percent, to one that is more equitable, i.e. ninety percent - one hundred ten percent. Knowing there will be multi-million dollar public assistance projects, underestimating the cost by twenty percent could be devastating to the applicant.
New Section 203 amends the Federal Assistance Programs available to individuals and households to create an expedited delivery system for human service needs of disaster victims. Although some current State responsibilities are shifted from the Governor to the President the process is "in consultation and coordination with the Governor" and should result in a more cost effective program overall. Existing flexibility in the emergency housing repair program should be maintained to give FEMA every tool needed to match family assistance with the needs resulting from a disaster.
We recommend consideration of additional flexibility in Individual Assistance Declarations. When a local jurisdiction is declared for Individual Assistance we would propose that the contiguous jurisdictions be included as eligible for disaster assistance. This would comport with the current regulations of the Small Business Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture in their agency declaration process. Such a measure would eliminate discrimination against those who happen to live on the other side of the river.
We applaud the provision found at Section 205 which formally recognizes the benefits of creating "management states" who have accepted more responsibility in managing the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. Florida was the first state in the nation to be designated a Management State, and it has had a very positive impact, expediting the entire HMGP process and reducing associated costs. We would encourage those states with the capability and desire to take this role to do so.
Recognizing Congress' desire and need to streamline the public assistance program we appreciate the Committee's willingness to let FEMA's Public Assistance (PA) streamlining initiative have time to mature. NEMA believes the PA streamlining will prove itself with time, and should be given the chance to experience success. Already, in those states that have used this new system on a pilot basis (i.e. Kentucky), they report it works well and has great potential.
Lastly, I would like to recommend the Committee consider a review of Section 420 (fire suppression) of the current Stafford Act. Having gone through what the U.S. Forest Service is calling the most complex fire event in the history of the nation, I wholeheartedly recommend the Fire Suppression Grant process be reviewed. The current process of securing a fire suppression grant is stressful and the fiscal management is very difficult. The process of obtaining federal assistance needs to be clarified. Further, FEMA should assume the leadership role in all disasters, including major fires. There needs to be one agency in charge in order to mitigate any confusion. We believe as more and more of our nations' population enter into the urban/wildland interface, we will see increasingly devastating forest fires directly impacting communities. As a nation, we must look beyond the traditional wind and water issues in preparing for disasters. We find the need to place more emphasis upon studying the overall issue of the urban/wildland interface, and the disastrous consequences of wild fire on these interfaces. We believe the consequences of urban interface fires can be mitigated. We also believe a fire suppression grant should generate funding for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, something it currently does not do.
In summary, NEMA and FEMA have labored very hard to encourage the creation of predisaster hazard mitigation programs and appropriate funding levels, as well as streamlining the public assistance process. This bill puts us on the right track, though we should constantly strive to refine the process. NEMA fully endorses the concept of reduction of future disaster costs through pre-disaster hazard mitigation programs. It is the only solution that will have meaningful impact on future disaster cost reductions. We support your efforts to institutionalize this concept.
NEMA and each of its member State Directors thanks you for this opportunity to speak to you today. We look forward to your continued efforts in this endeavor.