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Fri., Aug. 2, 2013, midnight

Editorial: Cutting pre-disaster grants proves more costly

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will help bear the costs of corralling the Colockum Tarps fire burning in Chelan and Kittitas counties, but a program that has helped many Washington communities avoid such costly disasters has fallen victim to a congressional ax.

Whacking the money available for pre-disaster mitigation grants to $23.7 million this fiscal year from $115 million a few years ago demonstrates yet again how counterproductive pinching pennies can prove to be when floodwaters rise or fires rage, exposing the U.S. Treasury to many more millions, if not billions, for disaster relief assistance.

Pre-disaster money can be used to move or raise public or private buildings beyond the reach of floodwaters, manage stormwater, protect critical utilities or build tornado shelters.

A 2007 study by the Congressional Budget Office of 317 grants concluded that $1 invested in fire prevention projects or programs returned $5.10 in disaster relief savings. Only mud and landslide prevention returned more. But only 13 of the grants had addressed those three hazards.

Grants to minimize flooding or wind damage were the most numerous, but returned slightly less on the $1 – $4.50. The overall payoff for all the grants was $3.20.

Washington has been among the main beneficiaries. Most of the grant dollars have gone to flood or seismic mitigation on the West Side, but several Eastern Washington counties, including Spokane, have received funds. Walla Walla, for example, is using $125,000 to create a fire barrier along one of its waterways.

With fires already consuming tens of thousands of acres in the West, taking the lives of 19 Arizona firefighters in the process, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett want more mitigation money for that hazard. They have inserted a provision in the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill that would direct FEMA to report on its mitigation programs and identify obstacles to their implementation.

The fire-related programs won’t receive more money; additional funding for prevention would come at the expense of the much more numerous efforts to minimize flood and wind damage. Considering the huge populations exposed to Superstorm Sandy, Crapo and Bennett have a difficult argument to make.

Their case is not helped by sequestration, which has reduced the resources available to fight this year’s fires, let alone discourage the advance of future blazes that have become worse since 2000. Economic damages have averaged $1 billion overduring the past decade.

Against that, weigh the expenditure of $23.7 million to mitigate all threats.

The Washington Emergency Management Division is taking applications for this round of pre-disaster grants. Only five will be forwarded to Washington, D.C. The $23.7 million is minuscule compared with the need and the return on investment.

The lost opportunities go up in smoke.

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