Some Fear Loss of FEMA as Separate Entity Will Hurt State

Times Staff Writer

The federal disaster agency that has aided California in the wake of numerous earthquakes, floods and fires has been folded into the Department of Homeland Security, a move that has caused concern among some state officials and earthquake scientists.

Some of the state's top seismic experts have privately expressed fear that the change might mean that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will reduce its focus -- and funding -- on response to such disasters as earthquakes. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, for example, FEMA provided nearly $10 billion of the $13 billion in federal aid to the state.

At the same time, James Lee Witt, director of FEMA in the Clinton administration, said in an interview last week that he is concerned about the Bush administration's decision to eliminate a special fund next year under which FEMA helps pay for retrofitting of buildings and other structures.

FEMA officials, backed by Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security, have tried to assuage the concerns.

Ridge went out of his way at a Feb. 24 meeting in Washington with state emergency managers to emphasize the "all-hazard" aspects of Homeland Security.

The department includes not only FEMA but also agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and the Federal Insurance Administration. The stated purpose of the amalgamation is to better fight terrorism

Ridge said Homeland Security would have three primary missions: to prevent terrorist attacks, reduce damage from them, and minimize damage from natural disasters. The state directors were relieved, for the third mission was a familiar one.

FEMA has been of vital assistance to California not only at Northridge, but also in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and the 1997 New Year's flood in Northern California and the eastern Sierra, to mention only the largest recent disasters in the state.

Besides putting up most of the federal Northridge assistance, it allocated $723 million toward strengthening buildings and public works against future quakes.

The largest single grant of "mitigation funds" was $294 million for the UCLA Medical Center. As in all mitigation grants, the idea was to reconstruct the center to increase the chances that it could remain functional in the event of a temblor.

Bush's budget calls for the fund to be eliminated. But Anthony S. Lowe, FEMA's director of mitigation, said equivalent funds will come to the Homeland Security Department in the form of "pre-disaster" allocations. That money will probably go to the same projects that FEMA previously funded.

New budgets call for $300 million to go to preventive measures. Some funds, he said, will go to anti-terror programs, but others will go to natural disaster programs.

Also, he said, the department will have an additional $1 billion over coming years to spend on development of real-time all-hazard maps to convey to authorities a precise picture of damage areas in terrorist attacks and other disasters. Those maps also would reflect damage patterns in the event of major floods, earthquakes and other natural calamities.

The combined maps will include the shake maps now available in California showing quakes' location, magnitude and damage zones. But officials said the new system will eventually record data from more seismic monitoring stations.

Lowe said the Bush budget calls for $150 million for developing the multi-hazard maps nationwide, and he hopes to see the system completed in three to seven years.

On Feb. 29, a group of quake experts, two from California, went to Washington to discuss with Congress the possibility of more quickly funding a $170-million multiyear program to complete a national network of 6,000 earthquake monitoring stations, including 1,000 new stations in California.

After Lowe told of the new multi-hazard maps, Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson said he was encouraged. But he cautioned that for such a project to succeed, the national seismic stations would also have to receive timely funding.

Hauksson added, "It's fantastic that they have plans to use the information from the seismic network for emergency response."

The western regional director for FEMA, Jeff Griffin, said his initial experience with the new organizational setup of Homeland Security had been reassuring.

When a typhoon hit Guam in December, he said, "my instructions, as in the past, were, 'Get these people back on their feet, just fix it, make them whole again.' It was just as it has always been."

Griffin added, "FEMA as a separate agency no longer exists, so [Michael] Brown, our new director, is an undersecretary for emergency planning and response. But the FEMA name will stay....We're still going to be running around with hats that say FEMA on them."

Witt, however, recalling that he and his successor, Joe Allbaugh, had, respectively, very close ties to presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said he feared the new FEMA director and undersecretary, Brown, "would have an awful lot of people between him and the president."

In other words, Witt suggested, FEMA may not be as prominent as it was when it was independent, and its services to states and localities when disaster strikes could suffer.

Lowe responded, "We are definitely not out of the loop. We supply the first response."

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