Edited Version of November 29, 2000 Transcript
EIIP Virtual Library Presentation

"Evaluation of the Project Impact Disaster Resistant Community Initiative"

Kathleen Tierney
University of Delaware

Amy Sebring
EIIP Technical Projects Coordinator

The original unedited transcript of the November 29, 2000 online Virtual Library presentation is available in the EIIP Virtual Library Archives (http://www.emforum.org/vlibrary/livechat.htm). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each input were deleted but the content of questions and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers to participants’ questions are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Amy Sebring: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Library! Our topic today is "Evaluation of the Project Impact Disaster Resistant Community Initiative."


We are pleased to introduce our special guest, Dr. Kathleen Tierney. Kathleen is a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Since 1997, Dr. Tierney and DRC Co-Director Joanne Nigg have been conducting an assessment of FEMA's Project Impact initiative. That study, which began with a focus on the seven original Project Impact pilot sites, has been expanded to include communities that joined PI after the pilot phase. Here is an outline of what Kathleen will be sharing with us.


Kathleen, it is an honor and a privilege to have you with us today. Welcome and thank you for taking the time to join us.


Kathleen Tierney: Hello, everyone. I'm going to be talking with you today about the issues the Disaster Research Center has been exploring in its study on Project Impact (PI), how we have gone about conducting our work, and what we are finding as we travel around the country and talk with people who are involved with the PI process at the community level.


In late 1997, with FEMA funding, DRC began an independent assessment of how PI was developing and evolving in the seven sites that were initially chosen as PI pilot communities. In 1998, teams of DRC researchers visited each of the 7 pilot sites and conducted interviews with key PI participants. Program personnel were re-contacted again in 1999 and 2000 in order to chart program progress in the 7 pilot communities. In addition to studying those 7 PI sites, DRC also expanded its research to look at other communities that joined PI in subsequent years.

In this phase of our work, we have conducted focus group interviews with PI program participants from around the country during FEMA's Mitigation Summits in 1998, 1999, and 2000. This series of eleven focus group sessions involved over 70 individuals, selected to ensure broad representation from PI communities nationwide.

This year, DRC also made visits and conducted additional interviews in 10 PI sites around the country--one in each federal region--that were selected to build in variation in community size and in the types of hazards they faced. During those visits, our staff had long discussions with PI coordinators and with other individuals who are very involved with the program.

We also collected extensive documentary material on all the sites in our study, including memoranda of agreement, statements of work, and other materials produced by the PI communities. Our research findings are based on a variety of sources: individual interviews, focus group interviews, and documents and records.

This next slide lists the topics that we focused on in our studies of the 17 PI communities--the 7 pilot sites and the 10 sites that joined PI later:



Similarly, in our focus group discussions, we obtained information on such topics as what communities do to keep momentum going, what they are doing to expand PI to all segments of the community, challenges associated with maintaining partnerships, how to move from public education programs to actual structural and nonstructural mitigation activities, and what kinds of help and guidance communities would like from FEMA.


Based on our work, DRC staff wrote several reports, the titles of which you can see on the slide. Those reports are available for free downloading from the DRC web site.


Let me move on to talk in general about what we have found. First, the good news is that Project Impact is having an impact --- and that impact can be observed on a number of different dimensions. I'll just briefly talk about two: partnerships and hazard assessment and mitigation activities. In the area of partnership development, looking at the 7 pilot sites, in the first two years of the program, DRC observed a rather dramatic increase in the total number of partners involved in PI activities. There was growth in the number of federal and state partners, but expansion was particularly marked with respect to local partners. I should note, however, that these improvements have not been equal across the board; some communities are doing better than others.

Assessing hazards and taking concrete steps to mitigate them are activities that are critical for PI's ultimate success. Again, DRC has documented an impressive number of these kinds of projects. Community-wide risk and vulnerability analyses, often involving partnerships between communities and state and federal agencies, are under way.

Hazards are being mapped, mitigation plans are being developed, critical facilities are being retrofitted and upgraded, structures are being located out of hazardous areas, and land-use issues are being addressed. We are seeing a number of improvements taking place, and we believe that many of these improvements are the result of the impetus provided by the PI initiative.


Both interviews and focus groups uncovered a number of issues related to program implementation, and I want to turn next to a discussion of a few of those issues. One important set of issues has to do with ensuring that once programs get started, they establish themselves at the local community level. This is not easy. In the literature on the sociology of organizations, a lot has been written about what sociologists call the "liability of newness." New businesses, for example, are significantly more likely to fail than older ones, simply because of the challenges associated with being new.

PI is a new program --- and an unusual one at that --- and like any other new organization or entity, PI has to overcome the liability of newness, something that more institutionalized programs have already succeeded in overcoming. In part because PI is so new, program activities can be quite vulnerable to changes in the local political and economic climate. For example, in four of the seven pilot communities, there was turnover in key positions, such as the mayor, city manager, and the county administrator.

This means having to start over to educate a new set of local decision makers. In one case, we were told that hazard reduction was no longer as important a priority as it had been, due to turnover in local political offices. Because of the nature of our political system, community politics are pretty complex, and a certain amount of conflict is normal. But PI programs can find themselves in the middle of these conflicts, between cities and counties, for example. If governmental jurisdictions and departments haven't already been working together on a regular basis, this is going to carry over into their PI activities.


Our study participants also emphasized the crucial role played by local PI coordinators in getting the program established and maintaining momentum. Our interviewees talk about the need to have a full-time PI coordinator to keep the program moving forward. Having someone in that role who is also responsible for other programs doesn't work well; the program needs at least one dedicated, full-time position. PI coordinator turnover can also be a problem, because it can disrupt momentum.

Communities seem to concur that PI has a better chance of being effective if the coordinator is able to work closely with the local executive office and to have direct access to decision makers. There is a tendency to assume that local emergency managers make the best PI coordinators. However, our findings suggest that there could be a downside to locating that function in traditionally response-oriented agencies.

Additionally, I want to emphasize that PI coordinators need to be just that: coordinators of people, activities, and resources. Coordinators can't do everything and make all the decisions themselves. Rather, their energies need to be directed outward --- to other groups, organizations, and potential partners --- and they in turn have to have a real say in the direction the program takes.

Again, we need to think about the challenges associated with newness. Communities have many needs, and people have many programs and causes to which they can devote time and money. PI is essentially a newcomer that is in competition with many other community issues. Someone --- in this case, an effective PI coordinator --- needs to be there consistently to show people that tangible benefits will result from their involvement with PI.

This brings me to my next point: The difficulty of maintaining momentum in the absence of significant disaster events. Disasters create windows of opportunity--teachable moments when communities are more willing than at other times to take the steps necessary to reduce losses. Although some PI sites have experienced disasters since they joined the program, others have not. Especially when there haven't been disaster occurrences, it is important that someone--or better yet, a group of people--works to highlight threats, call residents' attention to disasters that have stricken in other communities, and emphasize that similar things can happen where they live.

[SLIDE 10]

DRC's research has uncovered a number of other program implementation issues that I will just touch upon briefly. The first has to do with tensions that exist between Federal goal-setting and local community control. PI was initiated by the Federal government to meet certain broad objectives. At the same time, the vehicle for achieving those objectives is really local grass-roots organizing and capacity-building, and communities have also been given wide latitude to devise their own PI programs. This has naturally led to variation among communities in how they approach PI. Unfortunately, it has also led occasionally to disagreements with FEMA. There is, in other words, the tendency for a degree of conflict between Federal and local visions of what PI should be.

Local community representatives we interviewed express a need for clear, consistent guidance from FEMA. At the same time, they also feel that communities need the freedom to identify and prioritize tasks and to devise strategies that fit with their own political and economic circumstances. In other words, they don't want FEMA to micromanage their programs. Communities also want to see better communication and coordination among different governmental levels. For example, they become frustrated when the local counterpart of a national partner doesn't seem knowledgeable about PI or responsive to their needs.

When it comes to expending PI funds, communities often feel torn. They recognize the need to get programs up and running. However, they are also very aware that funds are limited. They want to spend their money wisely, and they understand that planning and carrying out mitigation projects can take a long time. This can bring them into conflict with FEMA's desire to commit and spend money more rapidly.

Communities are also extremely eager for information on all aspects of PI --- for example, on what strategies are working elsewhere. They believe FEMA should help by providing more technical assistance and supporting the development of broader interactive networks among PI communities. Additionally, with both the initial seed grants and the current administration coming to an end, there is considerable concern about the future of PI. Local community participants want assurances that their activities will be supported in the coming years. To them, this only makes sense, given that the changes PI envisions can only take place over years, decades, and even generations.

[SLIDE 11]

Finally, I want to conclude my presentation today by emphasizing that when we chart PI's progress, we need always to keep in mind that the goal of PI is really to bring about significant social change. Those change efforts center on two broad areas: First, reducing the deaths, injuries, social disruption, and other losses that result from disasters. And second, changing the culture of this country: people's values and beliefs about the need to be future-oriented and prevent disaster losses to change the culture of this country to help people become future-oriented, and to get them thinking in terms of prevention.

In the first area, preventing deaths, injuries, and economic losses. It is likely to be some time before we can tell whether or not Project Impact is effective. In the second area, that of changing the way we think, about disasters, we believe that we are beginning to see change. The changes PI seeks to bring about are really very fundamental. As with all social change, those changes will not occur overnight, and we shouldn't expect them to.

However, our research does indicate that those changes are beginning to take place. And we do not believe we would be seeing the kind of progress we are if it weren't for the leadership that is being provided by Project Impact.

That concludes my formal presentation. I will now be happy to take your questions.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Amy Sebring: Thank you for that overview, Kathleen. We can get into some more detail in response to questions. We now invite your questions/comments.


Steve Detwiler: Has there been any indication from FEMA about the future of PI?

Kathleen Tierney: There is considerable concern among many people about the issue of program continuity. I believe that Maria Vorel and others at FEMA HQ are working very hard to ensure that PI does continue into the next administration and beyond.


Russell Coile: Non-PI communities are also "extremely eager for information." Detailed info for us outsiders has been difficult to obtain. One annual summit in DC doesn't do it. What could be done to help us get more info?

Kathleen Tierney: I think that there should be more of an effort to use the Internet to disseminate information on PI so that more people can become familiar with what is going on. In one of our recent focus groups, a group participant suggested that "mentoring programs" should be set up in which current PI communities "mentor" other communities that have recently joined, or that wish to join, PI. It was also suggested that communities that receive funding should be asked to agree to mentor other communities in order to pass on information on what is working and what isn't.


Kenny Shaw: In Arkansas, the State EM agency decides which community gets the PI dollars; not the best way to do it, in my humble opinion. Is every state that way?

Kathleen Tierney: No, that is not the case across the board. Although we are seeing more of a tendency for states to want more direct involvement with PI. Whether that is a good idea is a matter of some debate.


Steve Detwiler: Too often we see projects and funding come and go based on level of interest and funding, do you believe PI will be a short lived program or has it truthfully affected our country's awareness of disasters and their impact?

Kathleen Tierney: During the focus groups we conducted earlier this month we asked group participants about their plans for extending PI beyond the current round of funding. We were impressed with what some communities had to say about their efforts to make PI self-sustaining in their communities. For example, through setting up non-profit organizations with funding from various sources. We have also been hearing very promising reports about the ways in which communities are attempting to pull in funding from other sources, such as private foundations and Community Development Block Grants. But clearly these kinds of efforts require time, energy and dedicated full-time staff.


David Norwood: Most communities that I have talked with have come out of the box slow. Other than mentoring which you just mentioned, what are other ways of getting off to a good and effective start? And what were the average salaries of PI coordinators in your study?

Kathleen Tierney: Communities are asking for more opportunities to interact and network. For example, by having statewide and regional PI conferences more regularly or through having meetings involving communities that face the same kinds of hazards ---hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, etc. Again, they also see the Internet as an important tool for disseminating information. With respect to salaries, I'm afraid I don't have solid numbers there. Sorry.


Priscilla Scruggs: There is some info on its web site at <http://www.fema.gov/impact> and more will be added in the future.

Kathleen Tierney: I'm glad to see that Priscilla Scruggs is here from FEMA. I had meant to mention the FEMA web site. Thanks, Priscilla.


Roger Fritzel: I'm wondering if, in the past 18 months or so, any PI communities experienced disasters that offer insights into effectiveness?

Kathleen Tierney: Probably the most hard-hit community has been Wilmington, NC, a PI pilot community that experienced hurricanes and near-misses since they joined PI. They have reported progress they attribute to PI.


Bob Freitag: Do you think that PI efforts are bringing others (Planners, Architects, Engineers, MBAs), outside of the emergency management community, into the circle?

Kathleen Tierney: Yes, I do. It is particularly nice to see universities getting involved with PI and offering services of various kinds to their communities. Along those same lines, GIS is emerging as a very important tool not only for risk and vulnerability assessments but also for bringing together people from varying perspectives and disciplines --- sort of providing a common "platform" for discussions regarding hazards and for planning and prioritizing loss-reduction measures.


Ray Pena: I hate to be a cynic (!) but this all comes down to dollars. Communities know all about hazards they'd like to mitigate, and how to do it. If the feds (FEMA) would give them the money (with very few strings attached), off they would go.

Kathleen Tierney: I'd like to hear what others think about this. Is it primarily a matter of Federal dollars?

Amy Sebring: Ok, everyone we will quickly do a survey, just put in Yes or No. No question mark needed.

Kenny Shaw: It's the major impetus.

Jonathan Perry: No.

Amy Sebring: Probably.

Ray Pena: Like the astronaut said, "no bucks, no Buck Rogers".

Kathleen Tierney: Necessary but not sufficient.

Russell Coile: No.

Tom McAlister: Yes.

Terry Storer: Yes.

David Norwood: Yes.

Christopher Effgen: NO.

Roger Fritzel: No.

Rich Weber: No.

Diane Merten: I don't think so

Steve Cochrane: No.

Avagene Moore: Yes and No. As long as disaster funds are apparently with no end, there isn't a great reason to do mitigation.


Claire Rubin: At the Summit, I heard talk of the PI coordinators forming an association. Is that an important next step?

Kathleen Tierney: That would be a very good idea especially since the coordinators are the "point persons" for PI in their communities.


Roger Fritzel: Regarding "advertising" of PI, an association might want to sponsor distributing an interactive CD that communities could reuse?

Kathleen Tierney: That is exactly the kind of thing communities are asking for.


Bob Freitag: Regardless of PI funds, disasters will happen, stuff will be rebuilt, and funds spent. Until PI even FEMA staff was often reluctant to delay recovery efforts for mitigation. Within this context, I believe that PI is becoming a great success. There are voices at all levels.


Marshal Watson: Thus far PI has been geared to natural disasters. Is there any indication it could move to include WMD type preparedness?

Kathleen Tierney: I have not heard anything about WMD, but that doesn't mean it isn't happening. Maybe someone else could comment on that.


Diane Merten: I believe communities need to put building disaster resistance and resilience into each department so that this just becomes a way of life for all communities.

Kathleen Tierney: I think this is part of the PI vision --- and a very important part. But as I said, getting that kind of change to take place is a long-term process. It is important to keep in mind that major changes like that will not take place over night.


Amy Sebring: My question relates to Diane's comment. Your report notes a lack of creativity in the policy-making area, with more emphasis on specific projects. I believe this relates to the need to "institutionalize" the Project Impact goals in order to sustain momentum beyond the initial funding. What kind of creativity do you think is needed in the policy-making area?

Kathleen Tierney: For starters, I think that it is important to, as a previous comment said, build the concept of disaster resistance into a wide range of programs, not just those sponsored by "official" disaster agencies. Enhancing disaster resilience should be part of the local land-use planning process; it should be integrated into economic assistance that is provided to communities. Concerns about hazard reduction should inform development decision making at the local level, and so on.


Diane Merten: I agree that this is long term because we have had our Emergency Management Council that is a public/private partnership for about 10 years and have been a PI community for only 2 years. But our County Commissioners and our City Council and our Fire Department Master Plan, and our local businesses are doing continuity planning, so I agree that it takes long term diligence. Thanks.


Amy Sebring: Final thought, Kathleen?

Kathleen Tierney: First, I really want to thank everyone who took part in the forum today. I see a number of friends out there --- always good to hear from you. I encourage everyone to take a look at our reports and to contact us at DRC with your questions, comments, and suggestions. And for more information about our center, check out our web site at <http://DRC.udel.edu>. And thanks again for your attention and comments.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much for being with us today, Kathleen. Please stand by a moment while we take care of some announcements. For any first-timers, we will have a text transcript posted later this afternoon, which you will be able to access from the Transcripts link on our homepage. Then on Friday we will have a reformatted transcript in both html and in Word for download.

Please note that we will have a shortened schedule for December, and will send it out to our mailing list later this week. We will also have our monthly newsletter out on Friday. If you are not currently subscribed and would like to, please go to <http://mail.wces.net:81/guest/RemoteListSummary/EIIP>.

We also have a new pledger this morning, Nita Archer from Wharton County, TX.

< //bell http://www.emforum.org/pledge.wav>. Thanks Nita! Avagene, can you tell us what's coming up in the Virtual Forum for next week, please?

Avagene Moore: Yes, thanks, Amy. And thank you, Kathleen, for the fine overview of the Project Impact Study. On behalf of the EIIP, we appreciate you being with us today.

Next week, Wednesday December 6, 12:00 Noon EST, the Virtual Classroom will be the scene for a discussion on "Chemical Accident Risks: A Preliminary Analysis of Risk Data." James C. Belke, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office, will be our guest speaker. Please mark your calendar for this important session. That's all for now, Amy.

Amy Sebring: Thank you, Ava. Thanks to all our participants today for excellent questions and comments. We will adjourn the session for now, and you no longer need to use question marks. Please help us thank Kathleen for an excellent presentation.