Testimony of Dan Summers, Director, Department of Emergency Management, New Hanover County, N.C.
Before the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property, and Nuclear Safety
Committee on Environment and Public Works
July 23, 1998

Thank you Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. It is indeed an honor to be with you today. I compliment you on the desire to learn more from local government regarding possible amendments to the Stafford Act.

I bring to this discussion fifteen years service as one community's Emergency Manager having participated in four Presidential Disaster Declarations.

In North Carolina nearly all one hundred counties have experienced disasters in the past decade. The issue of disaster response is no longer the other communities problem. I can attest that most all local governments now have a greater appreciation for a sound emergency management response program. However it is my belief that while disaster response plans are improving, only a small number of communities are sensitive to the rising disaster cost and the potential for cost reduction under the concept of mitigation

This Committee, along with some local governments and federal agencies are equally concerned about the cost of disaster recovery. However, before you hasten to suggest budget cuts or tighter restrictions, understand that every disaster response is community specific. Needs vary, and individual pain and suffering is far greater than the typical 15 second sound bite seen on the evening news.

I have witnessed federal participation in disasters in the 1980's and I have been a part of the federal response effort during events of the 90's. Allow me to compliment FEMA and many of its Federal partners on dramatic improvements in customer service. While dramatic improvements have occurred and communities are better served, there still exists opportunities to reach new levels in disaster response and mitigation.

The efforts of FEMA's Project Impact is the new cornerstone of local recovery and mitigation initiatives. My community -- New Hanover County North Carolina is one of the seven pilot communities involved in this worthwhile program. With FEMA's program support, we have a local community-driven task force. Our task force, titled the Partnership for Disaster Mitigation & Recovery has generated strong community interest. Let me illustrate some of our successes. In partnership with Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, we have conducted Hurricane Preparedness Expos. This event allows hundreds of visitors and customers to learn more on topics ranging from simple preparedness reminders to the latest techniques in strengthening roof and wall systems.

Barnes and Nobles Bookseller contributed a full month of community service programming to hurricane awareness and single family home mitigation techniques. Most notably has been the highly acclaimed sessions for children who have learned preparedness and drawn pictures of elevating their homes illustrating their understanding of disaster mitigation techniques.

Just one of our planned construction projects is a combined FEMA and local effort. Combining funding sources we are designing new school roof systems to not only reduce the cost of damages during the next hurricane, but improving the building's safety as an evacuation shelter. A key part of this activity will include training local engineers, building code officials and architects on the latest wind resistant techniques for incorporation into future school construction projects.

For the record, a summary of our community activity and work projects has been submitted.

The Partnership is continuing to work on dozens of ways to minimize the financial impact of our next hurricane event. Project Impact has allowed local communities to best define their needs as opposed to following a manual generalized for the entire country.

If you analyze the disaster recovery process, the majority of the response activity is a local effort. Assistance typically is needed during recovery and restoration. Restoration and recovery efforts, especially for infrastructure items such as public buildings, schools, roads, and basic housing, are extremely difficult to manage following any disaster for any level of government.

If a community takes steps to reduce the effects of future disasters especially areas experiencing repetitive events -- it is simple to understand that the pressures for local government will be reduced. Surprisingly, most of our disaster outcomes are no longer unknowns. Mitigation dollars in partnership with local communities will be our roadmap to reduction in federal disaster dollars.

One analogy of supporting funding for pre-disaster mitigation might correlate with the concept of a vaccine. If the government supports the cost of vaccinations' the cost to the community is reduced by not having to combat that particular disease. Furthermore, the education and awareness efforts associated with vaccination programs contributes to our overall community wellness and improved standard of living.

Project Impact and pre-disaster mitigation funding opportunities for communities can work much like a vaccine. If FEMA helps the community develop a team approach to building disaster resistant communities and injects funds for local demonstration mitigation projects, the community then has the opportunity to map its own mitigation successes.

Recently, one of our local elected officials put Project Impact in this perspective. Look at what our nation has accomplished supporting concepts of recycling and the use of seatbelts. In these programs we have invested in public education, research and demonstration grant funding. By supporting pre-disaster mitigation funding opportunities with closely aligned federal and community partnerships, a national disaster mitigation ethic will begin to emerge. This ethic or change in the way we handle disasters is the best way we know to begin the process of reducing disaster cost.

In closing, I cannot begin to tell you the excitement and dedication my community has developed regarding Project Impact and the common sense approach to pre-disaster mitigation. My community, especially large & small businesses, feels that this is "government at its best" because the activities and programs are flexible and community-based. Be patient, we all know that new pre-disaster mitigation strategies will take time to conceive, develop and implement on a state & local level. Your pre-and post-disaster mitigation funding support will in-time begin to show some very tangible results.

I thank you for this opportunity, I hope that you will give strong consideration to opening the regulatory doors for FEMA, and allow a community-based disaster mitigation ethic to be born.

Thank you, and may I answer any questions you may have?