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The Dirty Little Secret Known to Most Disaster-Relief Workers : Quake: A chain of natural calamities has shown that FEMA is no safety net. In the end, self-reliance is the best tactic for survival and recovery.

September 20, 1992|Richard M. Walden | Richard M. Walden is president of Operation USA, a disaster-relief group

Californians do not need Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki to remind them of the potential impact, financial and social, of a natural disaster and of how hard it is to find reliable federal help in coping with the havoc.

On six occasions since Oct. 30, 1991, state and local officials have called on the Federal Emergency Management Administration for help. There were the horrific fires in the Oakland Hills and in Calaveras County, earthquakes in Humboldt County and in the Landers and Big Bear areas, flash floods in Los Angeles and Ventura and riots in South Los Angeles after the Rodney G. King-beating verdict. In all cases, FEMA responded--haphazardly and ever so slowly.

Then last week, the federal agency announced that it was taking back what it had promised: $80 million in public-assistance payments headed for Los Angeles and some 20 other disaster areas were abruptly redirected to Florida. The new emergency, it seems, was the political future of George Bush.

Even when FEMA is not a puppet of politics, or constrained by budget, it cannot be counted on to come through. The agency, along with the Small Business Administration, its handmaiden in disaster relief, regularly reject 30% to 50% of grant and loan requests. The chief victims are the weakest financially.

Truth be told, it is the local governments, nonprofit agencies, with their legions of volunteers, and private banks that shoulder most of the burden after a disaster. San Francisco's City Hall, for example, sustained nearly $100 million in damages caused by the Loma Prieta quake. FEMA gave the city $2.6 million. The headquarters building of Goodwill Industries' San Francisco, partly destroyed by the quake, received nothing from the agency. Locally, funds have yet to be approved for the demolition and reconstruction of public and private facilities along Crenshaw Boulevard that were burned out during the riots.

Until the disaster management and response system is overhauled, you should plan to go it alone. Here's how to survive.

For individuals and families :

--Beg, borrow or steal to have your home or apartment "earthquake-proofed." The money spent is a much better investment in safeguarding your possessions than in relying on quake insurance, which only comes into play when significant damage is sustained.

--Keep vital documents--including tax returns, deeds, home inventory lists--in a safe deposit box at your bank or strong box at home--either is the best protection against the army of clerks who will descend after a disaster.

--Maintain some emergency cash in a survivable place in case the disaster is so large that supplies become scarce and costly.

--Lay in a stock of earthquake supplies at home and in your car.

--Practice disaster drills at home and in the office, with assigned roles for everyone;

--Accept the inevitable: We live on one of the world's most active earthquake zones; wishing away a natural disaster is no substitute for preparedness.

For business and nonprofits :

--Plan carefully just how your organization can function after a quake of serious magnitude, with widespread disruption of normal activities. Ask yourself: "Can the goods or services we provide be of use in assisting recovery efforts?" In Florida, a startling range of goods and services are needed by storm victims, both as donations and at reasonable cost. Had these services been part of an emergency database, there would have been far less chaos than at present.

--Set aside emergency inventories, develop arrangements with out-of-area suppliers, have temporary help on call and set up, in advance, an emergency line of credit with your bank. These are not earth-shaking ideas; the number of companies and groups that follow these guidelines, however, is shockingly low.

--Nonprofits like clinics, churches and schools have key roles to play, as was evident after the L.A. riots. Some performed well, some were obstructionist, some despaired of doing anything at all. Few were part of an integrated plan.

For government :

--The buck has to stop in the White House, especially after a natural disaster with widespread effects. An office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance should be set up and directed by someone with immediate access to the President during crises. The coordinator should have the authority to orchestrate federal relief efforts and to override the inertia of governmental bureaucracies reluctant to commit funds from strained budgets.

He or she should be able to call upon the military to carry out a quick-strike relief effort. The "strike force" should be composed of personnel and equipment capable of handling two major disasters concurrently.

The military was called upon too late to soften the immediate hardship of Floridians left homeless by Andrew. But once it was mobilized, it performed brilliantly, far better than the well-intentioned, but underfunded relief groups or local governments could have.

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