After ice storms in 2002 and 2003 shut down power to more than 2 million North Carolinians, state emergency management leaders asked police, fire and other front-line personnel what they needed most to prepare for the next disaster.
The number one response: backup generators for shelters, fire stations and other emergency outposts--many of which had been dark during those winter storms.
To help cover the $3.5 million cost of the generators, state officials turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a department with which North Carolina had developed strong bonds--particularly during the 1990s, when a series of major natural disasters hammered the state.
The regional FEMA office in Atlanta approved the generators in May 2003 as a worthy preparedness plan. Raleigh, Sanford and Davidson were among the municipalities that submitted proposals.
But when the requests got to Washington, they hit a wall. FEMA officials began questioning the costs of the generators and whether they were even eligible for government funding. After months of back and forth with federal bureaucrats, word finally came down in May of this year, and it was a resounding "No."
North Carolina officials were disappointed by both the decision and the process.
"The regional office had signed off on it and that should have been the only real stumbling block," says Christy Sandy, grants coordinator for Democratic Congressman Bob Etheridge, who tried to help in negotiations with FEMA. "But when it got up to D.C., somebody said, 'Whoa, we're not doing this.' That's when everything came to a screeching halt."
State emergency management leaders say the generator request was shot down by a Bush-era FEMA that has cut funding for preventive strategies--strategies that saved easily $500,000 in western North Carolina after flooding from Hurricane Frances, and $9 million in losses in three communities Down East after Hurricane Floyd.
"The agency seems to be off message," says Kenneth Taylor, the state's emergency management director and a major proponent of mitigation. "What they have now is a more critical eye. It's 'This is what the law says we can give you and nothing else.' "
With FEMA now under the aegis of Homeland Security, others worry that the agency has become more focused on fighting terrorist attacks than hurricanes or floods. "They are pulling funds away from the all-hazards approach that has worked so well for us since the early 1990s and putting it into antiterrorism," says Sandy, of Etheridge's office. "FEMA has been the easiest agency for us to work with, so any move away from that is a big concern."
In the case of the generators, North Carolina had applied for money under FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), which funds measures aimed at lessening the impact of disasters, such as installing storm shutters and elevating or removing homes from flood plains.
An Aug. 5 letter to Etheridge from FEMA head Michael Brown explains that the agency's current policy is to fund generators under an initiative that sets aside 5 percent of total HMGP grants given out after a disaster for discretionary spending. "However, no funding will be granted out of the regular HMGP funds for such projects," Brown wrote.
Unfortunately, the state Emergency Management Division says North Carolina has only $1.2 million available under that initiative to cover more than $3.5 million in generator requests.
In Raleigh, where several shelters and fire stations lost power in the last ice storm, lack of FEMA support has effectively killed the generator plan. "Right now, that [money] is a big pill for us to swallow," says Lawrence Wray, assistant city manager. "We had a real budget crunch last year and they're forecasting another one this coming year. We just can't do it."
Critics of the newly reorganized FEMA wonder how many other preventive measures will have to be shelved because of the agency's current budget priorities. While funds for disaster response remain intact, "mitigation" monies have taken a major hit in the last few years.
Almost immediately after assuming power, the Bush administration eliminated FEMA's innovative Project Impact grants, which were launched in 1997 to help lower spiraling disaster costs. In North Carolina, 11 communities received $2.195 million in Project Impact money for disaster plans ranging from home buyouts to improved weather warning systems. A project in the Triangle to create a regional system for identifying and addressing hazards had just gotten started when the Impact program ended. That effort, coordinated by the Triangle J Council of Governments, produced a stockpile of information, but no report or followup.
More significantly, FEMA's "hazard mitigation" grants have been cut in half, from 15 percent of the total aid given after a disaster to 7.5 percent. (The formula had risen to 20 percent for communities with an approved disaster plan, making the cutbacks even sharper for those that had complied).
Since 1989, state emergency management officials say North Carolina has received $329.9 million in HMGP grants for projects in 70 of the state's 100 counties. Under the new formula, Taylor's office estimates North Carolina could stand to lose as much as $165 million in HMGP funds over the next 14 years.
Cutbacks on the "mitigation" side could cost more in the long run, state leaders warn. A study of 14 home buyouts and 47 elevations in Washington and Belhaven after Hurricane Fran in 1996, showed more than $2.8 million in losses were avoided when Hurricane Floyd hit three years later. In Kinston, which had the largest buyout program ever undertaken, more than $6 million in losses were avoided during Floyd.
Such evidence is one reason Etheridge and fellow Democratic Congressman David Price fought efforts by the administration to eliminate FEMA's mitigation grants altogether. "This is a good example of something that wasn't broken and didn't need fixing," Price says.
A compromise was a new $150 million "pre-disaster" grant program under which states compete for funds. The FEMA Web site shows that in the most recent cycle, North Carolina had just two applications approved: $75,000 to Charlotte/Mecklenburg for a "multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan," and $2.7 million to Kure Beach to buy and demolish a beachfront condo that had been shored up with sandbags to keep it from falling into the sea.
Claims are still being processed for the smaller-scale disasters that have occurred in North Carolina since FEMA's reorganization: Hurricane Isabel, Tropical Storm Bonnie and the remnants of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan. But already, some emergency management officials say they've seen evidence of greater competition there, as well.
Stanley Kite, emergency management director for Craven County, Down East, says he saw a different mindset in operation after Hurricane Isabel last fall, when he had to spend hours arguing with FEMA officials about which local roads were eligible for government reimbursement for debris removal.
"Now that FEMA's mother agency is Homeland Security, they can't make those independent decisions they used to make," Kite says. "There's another whole web of individuals things have to go through. We finally said, 'We're doing it whether we get reimbursed or not.' "
Even some expenditures that would appear a natural for support under FEMA's new antiterrorism push may not get adequate funding.
Congressman Price has been especially concerned about the firefighter grants that had been managed by FEMA and are now under the Office of Domestic Preparedness. The Bush administration has tried to cut those grants for two years running. An amendment Price offered to keep the firefighter grants under FEMA--where he and others feel they will be safer from the budget ax--was defeated last year on a party-line vote.
Chapel Hill Fire Chief Dan Jones has written about the issue in National Fire & Rescue, a national trade magazine he edits. "FEMA had made tremendous strides with supporting first responders and getting money directly to communities in a non-bureaucratic way," Jones says. "We'd made strides on the concept of all hazards. But now, this focus on terrorism has diverted a lot of attention. I've heard stories of rural fire departments being given all kinds of technical equipment; sheriff's departments being given special weapons. If you write terrorism in, you get the grant."
Jones' department is still waiting to hear about its application for equipment that will allow police and firefighters to use one radio instead of the three they now have to carry in their trucks to communicate with counterparts in neighboring towns.
A frustrated Winston Hester, mayor of Sanford, wrote in a March 25 letter to Etheridge that his city "has not received one dime" from the firefighters grant program, despite submitting several applications. "Your thoughts on how we can improve our chances to receive such funds would be greatly appreciated."
Not everyone is unhappy with the way FEMA has reorganized or with the flow of grant money to North Carolina. After all, the state has received $120 million in new homeland security-related grants this year--much of it going to local emergency management departments.
Mark Goodman, Onslow County's director of emergency services, is among those who are upbeat about the new FEMA. He believes having disaster response under the homeland security roof will reduce waste and red tape. And he's pleased the agency is now putting "teeth" in some of its regulations, such as requiring communities to submit emergency response plans in order to qualify for disaster aid.
Goodman, who was formerly assistant chief of staff for installation safety and security, antiterrorism and force protection at Camp Lejeune, says he's coordinating $1.2 million worth of homeland security grant requests for his county for equipment and training that will also be useful in the event of a natural disaster.
"I don't care if you call it homeland security money or money from Bozo the clown," Goodman says. "These are funds and resources we can use that weren't there before."
Lee County Emergency Management Director Jim Groves, who recently returned from a stint in Florida helping with the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, agrees. "There's been a paradigm change at FEMA," he says. "But if you play your cards right, you can buy equipment that will benefit you day to day."
Others are less sanguine about how homeland security-related money is being spent in North Carolina, and more worried about which areas might be left behind under FEMA's new competitive grant formulas.
"It's a mixed blessing," says Dewayne West, Johnston County's emergency management director and incoming president of the International Association of Emergency Managers--a group that's been critical of FEMA's new status as a division of Homeland Security. "There's an emphasis on putting more money where the higher threat level is, and that's difficult for small counties. What I and others have proposed is that we need a baseline capability first. Beyond that, competitive grants may be the way to go."
Says Stanley Kite, of Craven County, "I don't need bomb sniffing dogs and robots before I get protective equipment for my people. That's what we see with this last round of grant money. They are making certain people more eligible than others."
Cutbacks on the mitigation side are a real setback for a state with a track record like North Carolina's. "What we don't need to lose is that creative, forward thinking that's been so successful here," says Congressman Etheridge. "The R&D that will make a difference in saving lives."
The bottom line, many front-line emergency workers say, is that balancing the response to natural disasters and terrorist attacks shouldn't be a zero sum game.
"Nobody would want to be put in a posture of, do we have homeland security or disaster management," says Randy Beeman, who was Pamlico County manager when Hurricane Isabel hit and now works as town manager for River Bend near New Bern. "Someone has to make that call. It's about setting priorities."
For his part, Eddie King wonders whether those priorities will shake out for Pender County, where he's director of emergency management. FEMA recently denied a request from Pender, the site of a deadly tornado after Tropical Storm Bonnie blew through in August, to be declared an official disaster area. Gov. Mike Easley says he will appeal.
Meanwhile, King says there are plenty of people who need assistance in his county, much of which is rural and poor. Like many of his colleagues, he worries that FEMA's new homeland security mission will make it less responsive to "ordinary" natural disasters.
"The concern I have is, is FEMA as I have come to know it over the past 12 years going to lose its identity in the grand scheme?" King says. "And what is the end result to the disaster victim?"