FEMA’s former (and first) undersecretary of preparedness, George W. Foresman, said the agency has become tremendously more efficient since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, but also said that “we get so focused on bells and whistles that we fail to remember that behind every successful program is a good accountant and a good accounting infrastructure.”
FEMA’s heightened emphasis on preparedness has had a broad effect, coinciding with a boost in preparedness by states and communities. A 2012 FEMA report shows that 69 percent of the population lives in the 18,000 communities with a disaster mitigation plan, up from 57 percent of the population in 2007.
More than 75 percent of communities are confident of their abilities to respond to a disaster, according to the FEMA report, and 95 percent have participated in preparation exercises.
FEMA uses money – and its build first, then rebate model – to induce local planning, said Louise Comfort at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Disaster Management.
“FEMA is trying to create some leverage on the community to do their hazard assessment, which all communities are supposed to do, and to identify the most critical hazards,” she said.
The strategy of forcing communities to plan is working, she said. Insurer reluctance to write policies in areas identified as high-risk, such as those along the Gulf Coast, is causing people in those areas to move.
The insurance industry uses other incentives to coax communities to plan. More cities and towns are adopting the industry-sponsored Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule, which rates hazard preparedness from 1 to 10. (Only a handful of communities in the United States have the top rating of 1.) Better ratings mean lower insurance premiums.
Building requirements can make all the difference. In Moore, building codes didn’t change after the 1999 tornado. But the head of a local developer, Home Creations Inc., decided he would never again build a house that didn’t include wind-resistant features such as specially designed J-bolts, tornado straps for the roof and sturdy, oriented-strand board across the entire house. (The state requires oriented-strand board only around windows and corners.) These features should hold up under 160 mph winds. They add about $3,000 to the cost of the house.