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FEMA courts county as disaster-resistant site

by Christy Chalmers

If nature can build antibiotic-resistant bugs, why shouldn’t humans build natural disaster-resistant communities?

The government’s lead disaster-relief agency sees no reason why not, and Douglas County might be the next community to give it a try.

“We feel there’s a lot of opportunities here, and it could be very beneficial to the community,” said Dick Mirgon, the county’s communications and emergency management director.

The disaster-resistance pitch is coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is overseeing Project Impact. The program, implemented in more than 120 cities nationwide, encourages local people to insulate themselves against damage from disasters by cooperating on emergency management plans and taking individual measures that could cut their losses.

Grants of a few hundred thousand dollars are available to seed the effort.

“We know that this concept works,” said Melvin Nelson, a San Francisco-based FEMA communication liaison whose territory includes Nevada. “It doesn’t take an awful lot of disasters for this program to work in your area or any other area.”

Though the spiel sounds well-practiced – “We’re not talking about spending billions of dollars, but we are talking about saving billions of dollars” – Nelson explains how a few hundred dollars’ worth of home improvements can mean thousands more in the home’s value.

Small tasks like sealing windows and anchoring water heaters can mean less damage if a disaster hits. So can big projects, like the $15 million Anheuser Busch spent to retrofit a Southern California brewery before the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994. Nelson says the company probably saved $300 million and never lost a day of production.

“Those little things that can be done do work,” he said.

But Project Impact takes local cooperation and a long-term commitment, Nelson said. He cited the city of Sparks as an excellent example of a Project Impact community. Sparks tripled a $500,000 grant and has long-range disaster management and mitigation plans that involve all aspects of the community, he said.

County Manager Dan Holler said some businesses, like Home Depot, have already expressed support and interest in programs like Project Impact.

Plus, Holler said many county workers already have comprehensive disaster management training, and Project Impact would be a good way to continue that training and raise public awareness.

Douglas County’s commissioners agreed Project Impact might be a wise undertaking for a community that has regularly experienced fires, floods, mudslides and earthquakes. But they told Nelson they’re skeptical that the federal government will follow through and asked for a letter saying so.

“We’re going to have them (disasters) again,” said Commissioner Bernie Curtis. “We need to get on board with this. Let’s get going.”

“I think we’re talking about a program that’s absolutely fabulous,” added Commissioner Jacques Etchegoyhen. “Until we actually execute it, it’s a boatload of rhetoric.”

The boat may stop soon in Carson Valley. The commissioners, who heard the presentation Thursday in Stateline, said they think Valley residents would be interested and invited Nelson to appear at a future meeting in Minden.