Building Disaster-Resistant Communities

By Taylor, Cynthia Ramsay | USA TODAY, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Building Disaster-Resistant Communities


Taylor, Cynthia Ramsay, USA TODAY


IN 1998, Hurricane Bonnie swept through Virginia Beach, Va., crushing the new home of Kenny and Diane Gregory. Rather than simply repairing the house, they decided to start from scratch and rebuild with a disaster-resistant focus. With measures like an extra 16 inches of elevation as well as vinyl siding that can withstand 180-mile-per-hour winds, the Gregorys' house was able to stand strong against fierce winds when, a year later, Hurricane Floyd hit their neighborhood.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has spent more than $25,000,000,000 in the past 10 years on disaster recovery in more than 5,000 counties nationwide, total economic losses for each catastrophic event are much higher. Estimates for the Northridge, Calif., earthquake in 1994 are more than $40,000,000,000. Damage in Florida and Louisiana from 1992's Hurricane Andrew is estimated at $30,000,000,000. The Midwest flooding in 1993 caused $16,000,000,000 in damage. Realizing the overwhelming cost, both in dollars and lives lost, FEMA acknowledged the need to deal with disasters before they strike in order to break the disaster-rebuild-disaster cycle.

Recognizing that successful disaster-prevention measures needed to be based at the community level, FEMA stepped up its emphasis and education efforts to help communities identify and address risks, determine more-effective ways to protect life and property, and assist communities in their time of need. FEMA's prevention measures, paired with recent innovations in design and demands of homeowners, have helped contractors build homes like the Gregorys'--now able to tolerate the conditions created by hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Natural disasters can strike anytime, anywhere, and include hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, ice storms, severe weather, and wildfires. They can build over days or weeks, or strike suddenly without warning. Throughout history, the planet has experienced the unpredictability of natural disasters. Hoping to understand fully the complexity and the depth of nature, people have spent centuries learning to predict how, when, and where they will strike.

FEMA's disaster-prevention principles work to ensure that communities are prepared days, months, or years in advance of the next disaster. The message is clear: A disaster-resistant community can rebound from a natural disaster with more property intact and, consequently, lower costs for repairs. To educate communities about disaster prevention and mobilize them to take action, FEMA established Project Impact in 1997. The locally based risk-education initiative operates on three basic principles: Preventive actions must be decided at the local level; private-sector participation is vital; and long-term efforts and investments in prevention measures are essential.

To ensure that its messages were heard across America, the agency took a grassroots approach by encouraging communities to help themselves. In return, FEMA offered technical assistance, established partnerships, and provided grants in some cases to help initiate mitigation projects and leverage resources at a local level.

Deerfield Beach, Fla., is among the hundreds of local communities to work with FEMA through Project Impact. For residents, taking preventive measures was the only way to ensure the future survival of the community, its residents, and businesses. The community had been hit by seven major disasters in the last 75 years, each one demolishing homes, businesses, and livelihoods.

In order to demonstrate how all residents of the community could take matters into their own hands, Deerfield Beach built the Good Neighbor House, a model home demonstrating techniques other homeowners and businesses could put into place. The house, which can withstand up to 156-mile-per-hour winds, demonstrates how common-sense building materials and techniques--such as impact-resistant windows and properly nailed shingles--can protect a home. …

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