Fighting for our communities: APWA testifies to save disaster mitigation funding

Kristina A. Tanasichuk
Senior Manager of Government Relations
APWA Washington office

Brian Usher, Public Works Director, Zion, Illinois and Chair of both APWA's Emergency Management Committee and Homeland Security Task Force testified September 24 before the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. Usher convincingly told the panel to reauthorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) pre-disaster mitigation grant program and to restore the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to its original 15 percent of total disaster costs.

"We will never fit disaster mitigation in a neat budget line item," said Usher. "After a disaster we work to take every precaution necessary to assure that people don't lose their lives, homes or livelihoods ever again. You cannot measure, nor can you predict with much accuracy the magnitude or frequency of natural or man-made disasters."

Usher was responding to the Bush Administration's move to eliminate funding for the HMGP in favor of more fully funding the pre-disaster mitigation grant program at $300 million. "APWA is here today for the victims in communities where, after the disaster leaves the headlines and the resolve to mitigate the disaster gives way to other funding priorities, we are still there helping to clean up and rebuild our communities," Usher continued. "We cannot allow that resolve to slip away without action."

Brian Usher, left, testified on behalf of APWA before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.

HMGP is a post-disaster program that provides communities, through the states, with up to 20 percent of total disaster costs for "brick and mortar"-type mitigation projects, including relocation efforts, retrofitting structures and building safe houses. Under the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 (DMA2K), HMGP was established at 15 percent, with an additional 5 percent allowed for those states that have an approved mitigation plan in effect at the time of the disaster. The House Appropriations Committee cut HMGP funding in half—lowering it to 7.5 percent of total disaster costs instead of the full 15 percent required by the Act. DMA2K also authorized pre-disaster mitigation funding (basically a continuation of Project Impact started by the Clinton Administration) and established a formula under which communities in all states would receive funding. Pre-disaster mitigation efforts were aimed at helping local communities plan and prepare for possible disasters.

The Subcommittee heard from two panels: The first included Ron Castleman, Chief Operating Officer of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security; and the second included Brian Usher and Chad Berginnis, Chairman of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFP).

Chairman Steven LaTourette (R-OH) welcomed APWA's testimony with open arms. "My opinion, at least, is that the blended approach that both of you have advocated, Mr. Usher, you a little bit more strongly, that is exactly right," LaTourette said. Usher immediately established a friendly rapport with the Chairman as the two lamented botched attempts by the federal government to regulate too prescriptively the nation's infrastructure.

Brian Usher (right) speaks with Representative Lincoln Davis (D-TN, center) after Wednesday's hearing.

Using the example of APWA member Larry Nadeau's (Public Works Project Manager with Port St. Lucie, FL) work blending both pre- and post-disaster mitigation funds to complete successfully a major flood mitigation project in Saco, Maine, APWA advocated for the Subcommittee to maintain both FEMA programs. "APWA members believe that mitigation is critical both before and immediately after a disaster and believe it would be a mistake to eliminate or reduce the amount of HMGP funding," Usher said. "HMGP should be restored and maintained at 15 percent. Both programs must be fully funded. We believe our example clearly indicates why both funding streams are so important."

Additionally, APWA asked the panel to recognize public works' role as primary emergency responders, to encourage cities whenever and however possible to develop pre-disaster mitigation plans using an "all hazards" approach, and to blend homeland security funds with existing needs more smoothly.

After the hearing, the Subcommittee approved legislation that incorporated nearly all of APWA's recommendations. The Subcommittee:

  • Reauthorized the pre-disaster mitigation grant program for three years instead of the six-year reauthorization requested by the Administration to allow for the Congressional Budget Office to perform a study that would examine the cost-effectiveness of the program;

  • Amended the Stafford Act to grant the Under Secretary of Emergency Preparedness & Response the authority to waive the $5,000 cap on home repair assistance, in limited circumstances, to accommodate people unable to meet these needs by other means;

  • Restored HMGP funding to 15 percent.

Subcommittee Chairman LaTourette and Ranking Member Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) introduced the Predisaster Mitigation Program Reauthorization Act of 2003 (H.R. 3181) on September 25. APWA will continue to work closely with the Subcommittee to further the legislation's progress.

Kristina A. Tanasichuk can be reached at (202) 408-9541 or at ktanasichuk@apwa.net.