American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Hearing Summary on Mitigating Natural Disasters (8-20-98)

Between 1989 and 1994, the President declared more than 291 disasters, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spent over $34 billion in assistance to disaster victims. In order to decrease the federal costs of disasters and meet goals set out in the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), FEMA has restructured and refocused the mission of the agency to incorporate pre-disaster, community-based mitigation.  In 1996, the agency released its "National Mitigation Strategy," developed as a framework to help reduce the losses from natural disasters. Out of these reforms came a community-based partnership program called Project Impact.  Seven communities were chosen as pilot communities.  The program has proven to be successful, and FEMA has announced plans to have a Project Impact community in every state by the end of 1998.  Congress and the White House generally support FEMA in its attempt to decrease long-term costs associated with natural disasters, and disaster mitigation has been the topic of several hearings and bills.  Currently, there are over ten bills in Congress dealing with amending the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the law that authorizes much of FEMA's activities, in order to include disaster mitigation and streamlining the agency.

Most Recent Action
The House House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure passed H.R. 3869, the Disaster Mitigation Act of 1998 by voice vote on June 25. The bill was reported to the House (H.Rpt. 105-682) on August 6.

On July 23, 1998, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety held a hearing on proposed FEMA reforms in a draft bill.  Subcommittee Chair James Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Bob Graham (D-FL) have been working together on drafting legislation to "refocus the energies of federal, state and local governments on mitigation, and [to] shift our efforts to preventative--rather than responsive--actions in planning for disasters."  The Subcommittee members heard testimony from: James Witt, Director of FEMA; Hal Daub, Mayor of Omaha, Nebraska; Albert Ashwood, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management; Dan Summers, Director of the Department of Emergency Management for New Hanover County, North Carolina; and Joseph Myers, on behalf of the National Emergency Management Association.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was established in 1979 when President Carter signed the Stafford Act into public law. The mission of the agency is "to reduce loss of life and property and protect our nation's critical infrastructure from all types of hazards through a comprehensive, risk-based, emergency management program of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery."  In response to the growing costs associated with natural disasters and demographic trends suggesting that more Americans will be living in areas with significant natural hazard risk, FEMA developed its National Mitigation Strategy to " increase public awareness of natural hazard risk and significantly reduce the risk of loss of life, injuries, economic costs, and the disruption of families and communities caused by natural hazards."  The agency called upon all levels of government, individuals, and the private sector to build partnerships to address the five major elements of the plan:

The National Mitigation Strategy includes within it a the Mitigation Action Plan that describes actions Americans in all areas of society should take to begin to reach the goals set in the Strategy.

In Fall 1997, FEMA announced the launching of Project Impact, a community-based pre-disaster mitigation program that would have seven pilot communities.  The seven communities chosen were Deerfield Beach, FL; Allegany County, MD; Oakland, CA; Pascagoula, MS; Seattle, WA; Randolph County/Tucker County, WV; and Wilmington/New Hanover County, NC.  Earlier this year FEMA announced that the pilot program had been a success and was planning on opening one Project Impact community in every state.  The Project Impact website includes information on ways for communities to reach the National Mitigation Strategy goals.

These reforms within FEMA have brought a lot of support from the public, the White House, and many members of Congress.  The agency has been the topic of several bills in Congress, including five bills on mitigation.  In September 10, 1997, Representative Bud Shuster (R-PA) introduced the Disaster Streamlining and Cost Reduction Act of 1997, H.R. 2446, which was referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.  The Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a hearing on January 28, 1998, to discuss natural disaster mitigation and H.R. 2446, which was subsequently replace by H.R. 3869, the Disaster Mitigation Act of 1998, that was sponsored by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY).  The third House bill on disaster mitigation is H.R. 3728, the Disaster Relief Partnership Act, sponsored by Rep. David Obey (D-WI).  It was referred to several committees and has seen no further action.  On the Senate side, there have been two bills introduced in this Congress.  On July 10, 1997, Senator John Chafee (R-RI) introduced S. 1007, the Disaster Streamlining and Costs Reduction Act of 1997, on behalf of the Administration.  The bill was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works the day it was introduced and has seen no further action. Earlier this summer, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced the Disaster Mitigation Act of 1998, S. 2361, that the Committee on the Environment and Public Works reported favorably with amendments on July 29.  It is very unlikely that any of these bills will be passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by the President before the November elections.

Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety

July 23, 1998

On July 23, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety held a hearing on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster mitigation reforms.  The Subcommittee Chair, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), began the hearing by saying that he supported the new mitigation initiatives but felt that "some controls" were necessary, controls that were incorporated in the Disaster Mitigation Act of 1998, S. 2361, a bill sponsored by Sen. Inhofe.  The Chair's statement was followed by opening statements from Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Tim Hutchinson (R-AR).  Sen. Graham, an original co-sponsor of S. 2361, said that the bill seeks to "reduce the impact of disasters by authorizing a pre-disaster mitigation program" and to streamline the current programs to "save administrative costs and to simplify the program for grant recipients."  In closing, Graham said that there were four questions he wanted answered in this hearing: (1) how  Project Impact has been implemented to date; (2) what is being done at the state and local levels to encourage mitigation; (3) how successful has the program been in incorporating private-sector partnerships; and (4) what congressional legislation is needed to help ensure the success of Project Impact.  Sen. Hutchinson said that the direction of Project Impact and pre-disaster mitigation is "the most important mission of FEMA."

The witnesses included James Witt, the Director of FEMA, who discussed the efforts being made in the agency to help meet the needs of disaster victims and the work being done in pre-disaster mitigation. He talked in detail about the pilot communities in Project Impact.  "This [was] an historic hearing since [the Disaster Mitigation Act of 1998] provides increased legislative authority for pre-disaster mitigation. . ., an important new phase in the evolution of emergency mitigation."  In his written statement, Witt said that FEMA "respectfully object[s] to some provisions of the bill" but did not elaborate.

The other witnesses testified regarding specific language in the bill that they either supported or opposed, giving suggestions as to ways to improve the legislation.  The full written testimony of all witnesses and opening statements are available on the Committee's website.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

May 7, 1998

On May 7, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a hearing on disaster mitigation. The purpose of the hearing was to receive testimony relating to a draft bill to amend the Stafford Act. According to Subcommittee Chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), the bill would "for the first time, authorize federal funding for cost effective pre-disaster mitigation projects."

Mr. Mike Armstrong, head of the mitigation directorate at FEMA, spoke about the success of the pilot Project Impact communities, and FEMA's goal to have a Project Impact community in each state by the end of the year. He emphasized the importance of local community involvement in mitigation efforts, as well as the need for private sector support. He suggested that the committee use Project Impact as a model for any pre-disaster mitigation efforts. He supports the attention given to modernizing maps within the bill, but would like to analyze the bill provisions more carefully. The question and answer session focused primarily on Project Impact logistics and funding needs and property buyouts. The full written testimony of Armstrong and the other witnesses -- Dale Shipley of the National Emergency Management Association; Rebecca Quinn of the Association of State Floodplain Managers; Barbara Cleland, National League of Cities, as well as background information is available on the subcommittee website.

Update:  Subcommittee Chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) introduced the bill several days later as H.R. 3869, the Disaster Mitigation Act of 1998. The subcommittee marked up and passed the bill by voice vote on May 20.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

January 28, 1998

On January 28, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a hearing on disaster mitigation. In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R- NY) quoted FEMA Director James Lee Witt by expressing his belief that "mitigation must become a priority throughout all levels of government," and announced that the Administration would be seeking an increase in mitigation funds in the FY99 budget. He also spoke about relevant legislation, which would be further addressed by the bill sponsors in the first panel. The witnesses full written testimony and background information is available from the subcommittee website.

Rep. Joe Skeen (R-NM) testified on behalf of H.R. 3035, the National Drought Policy Act of 1997, a bill which would establish a National Drought Commission to provide recommendations to Congress and the Administration on a national drought policy. The bill, which was introduced by Skeen on October 24, passed the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure by voice vote on May 6. Skeen testified that droughts are usually not considered natural disasters because of their slow onset, but are "debilitating." Because the U.S. does not have a drought policy, the government must play "catch-up," creating legislation to address each drought. This legislation would remedy that problem. A similar bill, S. 222, was introduced by Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and passed the Senate on November 10, 1997.

Update:  On July 16, 1998, the President signed H.R. 3035,  the National Drought Policy Act of 1997, into law to become Public Law No. 105-199.  S. 222 was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, the Committee on Resources, and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on November 24, 1997.

Rep. Howard McKeon (R-CA) spoke about the problems that communities have when clearing channels in an effort to prevent flooding due to wetlands provisions in the Clean Water Act. Legislation he introduced on October 24, H.R. 2741, would "amend the [Clean Water Act] to exempt maintenance and repair of partially vegetated flood control channels that are components of flood control projects from regulations under provisions regarding permits for discharges of dredged or fill materials." The bill has over 15 cosponsors, and has been referred to the subcommittee. In response, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) proposed holding a field hearing in her home district in Cape Girardeau, Missouri to illustrate how her community has cleared such channels without damaging the environment. James Noyes, chief deputy director of the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, testified later in the hearing in support of H.R. 2741. He also noted that the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies has endorsed the bill.

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-OH), who introduced H.R. 2257, the Disaster Assistance Fairness Act of 1997 in July, testified on problems with disaster cleanup he had witnessed in his home district in Lawrence County, Ohio. His bill would amend the Stafford Act to "authorize repair or restoration of residences made uninhabitable by a major disaster in lieu of providing other types of (temporary) housing under the temporary housing assistance program. [It] sets forth flood insurance and income requirements for residences that are not capable of rapid restoration."

FEMA Director James Lee Witt was the sole witness in the second panel. Witt emphasized FEMA's efforts to streamline guidelines, increase state capabilities, and focus on mitigation. He also noted that 20 percent of small businesses do not reopen after a disaster, further emphasizing the need for mitigation. FEMA began a pilot initiative entitled Project Impact this year, which is based on five principles:

Three communities were chosen for the pilot program -- Deerfield Beach, Florida; Pascagoula, Mississippi; and Wilmington, North Carolina -- and FEMA is hoping to have a Project Impact Community in each state by the end of 1998.

During the question and answer period, many representatives personally thanked Director Witt for the aid they received during recent disasters in their area, further illustrating the wide impact disasters have had recently. Rep. Boehlert questioned FEMA's ability to ensure cost-effective mitigation. Witt replied that in Missouri , $100 million of mitigation ended up saving the state $350 million in three years. He also clarified that FEMA only supplies a small amount -- seed money -- for Project Impact.

In the third panel, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works John Zirschky provided testimony for the Army Corps of Engineers. He noted that the Corps supports FEMA's efforts with technical assistance and mapping information. Zirschky stated that the Administration opposed H.R. 2741, because "we do not believe that these maintenance activities for flood control channels should be exempt from the requirement of a Corps permit." He listed several ways localities have maintained flood carrying capacities of channels while accommodating other ecological functions of the area. He supports the National Drought Policy Act of 1997, stating that: "this could be a much needed action. The existing array of drought related legislation, programs, and policies, is confusing to those most in need."

In the fourth panel, Joseph Myers, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, testified on behalf of the National Emergency Management Association. He supports Project Impact, believing that "[its] success is crucial to all of us. It will have a measurable impact on reducing the selected communities impact to future disasters, and funding should be dramatically increased." He provided six recommendations to improve Project Impact: refine the process of selecting a community, define the role of the states, maintaining initiatives beyond the end of the initial funding, create incentives, unify the federal agencies involved in mitigation, and develop a mitigation strategy.
Sources: Federal Emergency Management Agency website, hearing testimony, House of Representative website, Senate website, EESI weekly updates, and the Library of Congress

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs and Margaret Baker, AGI Governmental Affairs Intern
Posted February 4, 1998; Last updated August 20, 1998


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