County officials look beyond tomorrow to future emegencies |

County officials look beyond tomorrow to future emegencies

Douglas County officials returned to Lake Tahoe from Washington, D.C., with disaster on their minds.

No, not the presidential election impasse.

The business and civic leaders, including Tahoe-Douglas Chamber of Commerce representative Diane Imbach and county Commissioner Don Miner, joined Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt and hundreds of other community appointees from across the nation last week for a summit called “Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities. The mission: to share how to best prevent natural disaster damage.

In upcoming meetings, the 13-member collective from Douglas County may address the kind of disaster that wiped out 250 companies during the midwestern floods that whacked Iowa and Missouri in 1993.

In 1996, for example, economic damage in the United States as a result of weather disasters cost $10.6 billion, FEMA reports. The agency has spent $20 billion in the last decade to help communities repair and rebuild after natural disasters.

Granted, a community’s best-laid plans cannot avert Mother Nature’s random wrath. But it can prepare for its most common scenarios, and federal grant money is available for such programs.

The local Tahoe group plans to meet next month to go over what it learned at the conference and discuss scheduling upcoming meetings that expand the core group into additional representatives and sponsors that incorporate health care facilities, schools, public utilities, emergency services, transportation outlets, local governments, volunteer groups and civic organizations. Public meetings will also be held, Miner and Imbach indicated.

One of the first goals will involve assessing a community’s risks and prioritizing what disasters are likely to command an action plan here. Lake Tahoe could experience any one of a myriad of disasters, including floods, earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides or avalanche dangers. But which ones make this community most vulnerable is the question.

What FEMA has chipped in for reconstruction efforts represents only a fraction of the cost of the nation’s disasters to its communities. Businesses lose plenty in employee productivity and revenue, while insurance companies spend additional billions in claims payments.

Over the last five years, the average annual cost to FEMA alone has amounted to more than $1 billion, excluding the cost of the Northridge quake in 1994. The state kicked in $360 million for the massive quake in the San Fernando Valley.

Future U.S. losses from earthquakes could total $4.4 billion a year, the agency estimated in a study released two weeks ago. Three-quarters of that damage is expected in California, which includes the Sierra Nevada range. The Sierra’s eastern slope, where the lowest point of the United States – Badwater Basin in Death Valley, runs adjacent to the highest point – Mount Whitney, was formed by a tectonic uplifting that could correct itself someday, geologists warn. The Himalayas were created the same way.

Witt has pointed out that the risks in the Golden State are growing not from more frequent seismic activity but because more people are living and building in hazardous places.

Governments typically rely on self-insurance to repair their buildings, essentially paying out-of-pocket expenses when damage occurs.

However, when the president declares a disaster area, the federal government usually covers three-quarters of the cost of rebuilding public buildings, with the state picking up the rest. This includes government buildings.

State officials in California averted their own alleged financial disaster earlier this month, when federal legislation requiring all public structures be insured died in the House of Representatives.

All 54 California members of Congress signed a letter opposing the proposal, and Gov. Gray Davis and lobbyists for cities and counties also fought it, the Associated Press reported.

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