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Project Impact Initiative to Create Disaster-Resistant Communities Demonstrates Worth in Kansas Years Later

A public-private partnership's legacy left Kansas communities prepared for a recent tornado.

Project Impact Lives
Project Impact, a short-lived federal initiative that worked to create disaster-resistant communities, showed that teamwork by different government levels and the private and nonprofit sectors can do amazing things when they're working in close partnership with one another. The program suggests how past experiences can provide a guide for future adaptation.

When a killer tornado plowed toward Manhattan, Kan., in spring 2008, people scurried to shelter - just as they had planned for years.

The little-known Project Impact, which began in 1997, encouraged residents to build tornado shelters. It paid off.

The half-mile-wide, F3- to F4-scale tornado left millions of dollars of damage, but everybody found safe shelter, and there were no deaths in Manhattan, said Dori Milldyke, the former Project Impact director. Her home was among those wrecked in the June 11, 2008, storm.

"Riley County and Manhattan Project Impact had given grants toward safe rooms in Miller Ranch, one of the major areas of damage in Manhattan," Milldyke said. "I'm sure it saved lives. One couple lived by hiding in their shelter under their concrete steps. Others found safe refuge in group safe rooms built in mobile home parks. And others knew where to grab the safest improvised shelter, following our Project Impact preparedness tips. As I go around helping people clean up, I am proudly wearing my old Project Impact shirt because I know it made all the difference here."


Curbing Losses

Although Project Impact was discontinued as a national program in 2001, the initiative continues to make a difference. Project Impact is alive and well in Miami-Dade, Fla., according to Frank Reddish, the county's blunt-spoken mitigation manager.

"We routinely have up to 100 organizations attending our meetings, including all our municipalities, major county departments, nine colleges and universities, 10 hospitals, nonprofits such as Red Cross and the Humane Society; and good old for-profits including IBM, Wal-Mart, Macy's, Visa, UPS, American Airlines, etc. We have completed more than $250 million in projects so far," Reddish said.

"Following the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, not one facility - not one - that we mitigated had any more damage than scuffed paint," Reddish said. "And where we had done flood mitigation, there was no flooding, none. Project Impact worked in Miami-Dade County and still does."

Project Impact towns, from Manhattan to Miami, got in the habit of collaborating in public-private partnerships to make long-term changes in their disaster profiles. Collaboration is a habit encouraged by Project Impact, which made a dramatic difference in some of the test locations.

When James Lee Witt was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he quickly saw that federal help could actually perpetuate endless disaster cycles of build, disaster, rebuild, disaster.

FEMA established the idealistic Project Impact initiative in 1997 to help communities reduce their disaster tolls by building partnerships among businesses, agencies, churches, neighborhoods and others who worked together on locally based hazard-mitigation activities.

These hazard mitigations included long-term actions, such as earthquake retrofits, floodplain buyouts and tornado safe rooms that can lower death and destruction dramatically.

"Working together, we can reduce disaster losses," Witt said at the time.

Project Impact started small, with pilots in a few dozen communities that built partnerships among first responders, businesses and nonprofits, so they could seize opportunities to build safer, stronger towns.

Witt had a big goal: to change the culture. He urged Project Impact partners to make hazard mitigation an integral part of how the community and its people live and conduct business every day.

"There is something about the Project Impact process," Witt said, "that will reach down into the heart of your community and bring out the best in your best people."

It didn't work everywhere. But when the project worked, it worked well.


Project Impact Principles

The successes and failures of the Project Impact initiative may rest in the fact that it wasn't a traditional federal program. Typically a federal program throws money at a specific and identifiable problem, with requisite rules and regulations attempting to control the outcome. A traditional federal program has three steps: a beginning, when the money starts flowing; a middle, when the work is strictly controlled from Washington; and an end, when the money runs out.

The Project Impact process was entirely different, more like a river than a pond. The idea was to devolve hazard-mitigation responsibility and authority down to the lowest possible level. If money changed hands from the feds to the locals, it was only seed money for growing a process that would not end when the money ran out.

In this model, the federal government became not an authoritarian parent, but instead a partner and facilitator to help inspire and empower locals to size up and solve their own problems - ideally before disasters struck. Local communities were helped to take ownership of their disaster problems and solutions. If it worked, disasters would happen less often and/or be less severe; and the empowered, more self-reliant community could bounce back sooner.

One mitigation example is in Tulsa, Okla., which used to suffer disastrous floods every few years. Tulsa instituted long-term mitigation advances in recent years, and the city has dramatically reduced - although not entirely eliminated - flood frequency and severity with improved channels, detention storage basins, aggressive maintenance and clearance of more than 1,000 buildings from floodplains. Tulsa has not suffered a major flood since 1986.

One advantage of public-private partnerships is that finite funds can be used to create a patchwork quilt of resources including volunteer help, private donations, business contributions and in-kind goods and services. There can be almost miraculous economies in a kind of "stone soup" approach, where everybody brings his or her own and shares. Another advantage comes through the strength of shared knowledge and passion.

In Project Impact, FEMA provided technical assistance, exchanged lessons learned among communities and encouraged peer-to-peer alliances among nationwide partners that helped inspire them to assist each other.

Some communities took the initiative's flexibility as license and saw Project Impact as no more than a short-term grant to do one specific project. In those towns, the benefits may have been fleeting or minimal.

In others, the initiative continues, in self-seeding crops of work that create safe and secure hometowns.


A Holistic Catalyst

When Washington, D.C., leadership changed in 2001, long-term mitigation fell out of favor. Detractors said Project Impact was a waste of money, but advocates said long-lasting changes take time. When Project Impact was discontinued in 2001, it had enjoyed less than five years of life - hardly long enough to revamp the culture in many towns struggling to change entrenched habits of turf building, short-term greed and long-term disaster aggravation.

Nonetheless, remnants survive in some communities where Project Impact, by whatever name, refuses to die.

Some communities continue partnerships and mitigation through government operations, like the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Building Commission in Indiana and the Jefferson County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in West Virginia. Others, such as Tulsa, set up 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations that are continuing the Project Impact work, often under other names - such as Tulsa Partners Inc., whose mission includes sustainability and disaster resistance.

In these and other towns, Project Impact was a catalyst for holistic management approaches and long-term thinking.

"Millions of individual decisions must be guided by comprehension of their consequences," said Tom Cain, former Project Impact director in Roanoke, Va. "Government programs that are framed to achieve results with two-year and four-year election cycles will never be sufficient to achieve the kind of cultural and environmental change that is necessary. Sound decisions must be implemented consistently - and forever. The real issue is cultural. We must believe that it is important to live within nature's limits. We must care and know what those limits are, and make decisions accordingly."


Lessons Observed

This kind of long-range vision is still working in places like Seattle, whose Project Impact volunteers spent their Saturdays diligently identifying and removing earthquake hazards, retrofitting schools and helping homeowners with nonstructural earthquake mitigation. Their patient work paid off during a 2001 earthquake.

"We made a long-term commitment when we signed the Project Impact agreement, and we meant it," said Roger Faris, a Project Impact volunteer who spearheaded the retrofit program.

"Even though the [Bush administration] abandoned Project Impact, the Puget Sound area's efforts to be more disaster resistant are continuing," Faris said. "For example, our free, seismic-retrofit classes for older homes are being taught by volunteers, including me, and we have great cooperation among emergency management, building officials and the academic community. The idea that local people know what needs to be done and can cooperate on all levels to move forward remains the best hope for accomplishing real mitigation."

There's the potential that with a new presidential administration, the lessons observed - lessons learned are rarely transferred from one administration to the next - from Project Impact might be applied to future mitigation programs and also beyond to other program areas in FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.

In Washington, D.C., within the Beltway, there will need to be consistent leadership and messaging when communicating with state and local authorities. In order to get buy-in from people in the hinterlands, they must believe that a new program being put forth has legs and is not going to be gone in six months as the next disaster or personnel change redirects effort and money to a new area. Getting a commitment from state and local officials might be difficult because of their experience of being blown by the winds of change for almost a decade. But it can be done.


Building Trust

One of Project Impact's strengths was the freedom given to local emergency managers and their partners to work on disaster mitigation that was deemed important by the local jurisdictions. As long as the effort fit within the broad mitigation category set by FEMA national leadership, local authorities were free to implement programs that they believed could work within their local context.

FEMA was not some distant partner back in Washington, D.C. The federal face put forward was that of the FEMA regions geographically dispersed throughout the nation. Staff in these regional offices have the local and regional knowledge to be helpful to state and local jurisdictions. Within the Project Impact model, they were present in face-to-face meetings - not as ever-present auditors, but as on-scene advisers - to help coordinate appropriate multifederal agency participation.

With the preparedness function returned to FEMA, there's an opportunity for a much closer interaction between government levels. One-on-one relationships that are built over time by working on joint projects will help establish a strong bond that goes beyond any single program area.

The personal involvement of FEMA staff as advisers, not dictators, with the program can make all the difference in ensuring that funding is allocated properly. Huge amounts of money aren't needed to spark meaningful work.

At its height, Project Impact was a $20 million national program, which is decimal dust in the federal budget. Given the funding that has been allocated for homeland security purposes, even a modest $250 million program would create new opportunities.

What was learned from Project Impact was that teamwork by the different government levels and the private and nonprofit sectors can make remarkable accomplishments. Treating people and organizations as equals pays off in the long run in building quality relationships that stand the test of time. Hazards and risks keep increasing, creating opportunities with the concepts of adaptation and mitigation.

These two concepts of adaptation and mitigation can make all the difference in our collective futures.


Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.