Prevention Is New Motto At Besieged Disaster Agency

In wake of devastating storms across US, FEMA and other relief groups look to cut risk of tragedy.

Since the start of the year, rain has pummeled the California coast, rivers in Alabama and Georgia have overflowed, and last weekend tornadoes touched down across the Southeast US for the second time in a month. All this before the spring thaw - the time when emergency flood aid is most in need - has even begun.

Severe storms, some caused by El Nio, have hit the country hard over the past 12 months. And each time a mudslide destroys homes or a blizzard knocks out power for a few weeks, federal and state agencies along with nonprofit groups dispense millions of dollars in emergency and reconstruction aid. One federal agency alone has spent $15 billion in disaster aid since 1993.

The rising numbers and cost of federally declared disasters - on the uptick since the early 1990s - is hitting aid providers so hard that the largest of them, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is reshaping its entire focus. FEMA's emphasis today, unlike a decade ago, is prevention - not reaction.

"At one point, the emphasis was on streamlining and making our services more easily available," says Vallee Bunting, head of FEMA's emergency information office. "But now we've decided a better tactic is to take a serious look at how to prevent disasters from happening in the first place."

That was underscored last month when President Clinton announced a $50 million commitment to the agency's disaster prevention efforts after touring the devastation left in the wake of the storms which devastated parts of California and Florida.

The prevention efforts so far have been concentrated in seven pilot communities from Tucker and Randolph counties in West Virginia, to Pascagoula, Miss., to Oakland, Calif. In those cities and counties, risk assessments are performed, business and civic leaders meet to discuss ways to educate the public, and homeowners are encouraged to make their homes resistant to harsh weather.

In Mississippi, for example, banks offer low-interest loans to those who use the money to retrofit their homes. In Deerfield Beach, Fla., children are now taught in school how to prepare for a hurricane or put together a disaster supply kit for their families. Home Depot stores in a number of cities are designating a disaster-prevention aisle that clusters together needed supplies - to build hurricane shutters or shore up a foundation against earthquakes.

"Project Impact provides preventive steps people can take to reduce the risk of life and property," FEMA's Ms. Bunting says. "We're working with state and local governments to really look toward the future and see what type of disaster seems to occur in a community and what can be done to stop it."

By September, FEMA plans to have prevention programs in 50 communities - one in each state.

THE tornadoes that blew through Gainsville, Ga., and Stoneville, N.C. last week offer an example of how costly storm damage can be today. Early estimates list the damage at $15 million. In addition to basic cleanup costs, 41 houses and 29 mobile homes were destroyed; some 150 structures are listed as damaged. As many as 100,000 chickens and dozens of head of cattle were lost.

FEMA is not alone in its efforts to keep such destruction from occurring in the first place. Scientists are pushing for improved technology to better predict winter storms and to target the exact timing and location of tornados and hurricanes. Even nonprofit groups set aside a portion of their time and money for education and preparedness.

The American Red Cross, for example, has placed a new emphasis on priming the 1,300 communities where it has chapters for potential storms since the 1982-83 El Nio devastation. "We learned a lot of lessons from that," says Christopher Thomas, a Red Cross spokesman.

The Red Cross has also documented a rise in the number of disasters it has responded to in the past few years: from 185 in 1995 to 268 last year. The increase has caused the organization to take a more holistic look at its work.

"We're there before, during, and after, teaching preparedness, pooling people and resources from across the nation, helping get people back on their feet," Mr. Thomas says.

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