One way to keep millions of federal funds

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

On February 2, President Bush released his fiscal year 2005 budget which eliminated and decreased funding for some of the nation's primary disaster response programs. The request eliminates the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) and reduces the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program by 50 percent. These cuts will severely decrease the amount of funds communities receive to mitigate against future disasters.

The HMGP, a grant program that pays states struck by disaster up to 15 percent of disaster costs to mitigate against future loss, has become a target because it is hard to predict the annual expenditure and because some critics believe that too much of the funds go to pay for flood relocation projects. And while some of these criticisms are true, the net benefits from the program to our communities far outweigh the administrative quirks experienced by the accountants.

For example, as all of you know, Hurricane Isabel hit the Hampton Roads area of Virginia with great intensity in early September 2003. Virginia alone suffered damage estimates ranging up to $1.6 billion in property damage, according to the Hurricane Isabel Assessment Team appointed by Governor Mark Warner. And, because the HMGP is still in effect, Virginia will most likely get 7.5 percent of the total disaster costs, up to or beyond $120 million to be better prepared if such a natural disaster strikes again. Without the program, Virginia would receive no mitigation funds.

There are other programs that are slated to help communities prepare for disaster. The Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program (PDM), formerly Project Impact, is a more recent addition to the arsenal of federal dollars aimed at mitigation efforts. It is, however, a grant program whose dollars are allocated on a competitive basis. And the Administration is asking for only $300 million for the year. Additionally, because Congress has yet to move on the Omnibus legislation that would reauthorize PDM, this program is also in jeopardy.

According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, from 1990 to 2002 federal disaster assistance has increased nearly fivefold over the previous twelve years, reaching $39 billion. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created the HMGP and the predisaster Project Impact program to address mitigation in particular. Since their creation, FEMA has obligated approximately $2.3 billion for these programs. APWA believes these programs work in concert to provide one of the best disaster mitigation programs in the world, and that eviscerating the HMGP in favor of PDM will have a chilling effect on the ability of local communities to mitigate against future loss of life and property.

Of the two programs, HMGP is unique in its approach. HMGP is a post-disaster program that takes advantage of the commitment and political will necessary for successful mitigation projects immediately after a disaster. Funds pay for retrofitting structures, building safe houses, purchasing radio weather transmitters, among many other purposes.

Brian Usher, Chairman of APWA's Emergency Management Committee, in testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, put it best. "So it is 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, that we stress the importance of HMGP," Usher said. Federal tools like the pre-disaster mitigation funding program and the HMGP complement each other and allow for communities to plan and prepare for disasters, as well as respond to and mitigate against disasters immediately after they occur.

APWA is working diligently to maintain HMGP funds. Through testimony, and letters to select senators, we have made great progress in the House of Representatives. Subcommittee Chairman Steve LaTourette (R-OH) and Ranking Member Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) introduced the Pre-disaster Mitigation Program Reauthorization Act of 2003 (H.R. 3181) on September 25 and later passed it out of the subcommittee. The bill would reauthorize the PDM for three years and reinstate the formula for HMGP from 7.5 to its intended 15 percent. The Senate remains a stumbling block. Although we have succeeded in getting reauthorization of the PDM into the Omnibus package, HMGP is omitted because of concerns expressed by Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond, of APWA's headquarters state of Missouri. He has been the lead advocate of eliminating HMGP. APWA has sent a letter to Senator Bond and has urged members in Missouri to write to the Senator.

As always, we need your help. Every letter to Senator Bond counts. And our efforts can make the difference between success and failure.

Please contact Kristina Tanasichuk at ktanasichuk@apwa.net or at (202) 408-9541 to see how you can help save HMGP.