Monday, March 23, 2009

Will FEMA deny funding for the next Western North Carolina landslide disasters?

Peeks Creek landslide September 2004. Photo compliments
Alan Marler

In September 2004 the mountain counties of North Carolina were in a state of emergency after rainfall-activated landslides caused loss of life and massive property destruction. Governor Mike Easley requested and the state received two federal disaster declarations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $72 million in aid.

FEMA requires post-disaster hazard mitigation planning

Federal emergency management professionals know that landslides are predictable and preventable disasters. In an effort to reduce the incidence of these costly catastrophes, Congress amended the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act in 2000.

To qualify for federal disaster assistance, all states must adopt strict hazard mitigation standards or risk losing access to emergency funds. Section 322 of the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 requires that all State mitigation plans:

(1) identify the natural hazards, risks, and vulnerabilities of areas in the State;

(2) support development of local mitigation plans;

(3) provide for technical assistance to local and tribal governments for mitigation planning and

(4) identify and prioritize mitigation actions that the State will support, as resources become available.

The North Carolina State Hazard Mitigation Plan/Update of October 2007:

This… Plan was developed to help serve the people of North Carolina by providing impetus for making our homes…as safe as possible against the impacts of …natural hazards….Therefore, this Plan is designed to be (1)informative, (2) strategic and (3) functional in nature. The Plan finds that the state meets federal requirements and remains qualified to obtain disaster assistance.
Is this statement true? Is the state in compliance with federal mandates? The answer is no.

The following facts demonstrate that the State Hazard Mitigation Plan is in violation of federal statutes.

Absence of hazardous land regulation

In 1998 the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management warned state legislators and county commissioners that the mountain region known as Western North Carolina was landslide-hazardous. If there was confusion concerning the accuracy of the report, the disasters of September 2004 should have made the probability crystal clear. Eleven years later no county government has made any meaningful attempt to control hazardous land development.

Western North Carolina landslide hazard mapping delayed

The post-disasters landslide hazard mapping program was authorized by the General Assembly in February 2005. Today only 2 series of probability maps have been completed for the region. The Macon (2006) and Watauga (2008) hazard maps show that much of the mountainous land in these two counties is likely to experience slope failures. The North Carolina Geological Survey has identified thousands of homes that have been built on landslides or in their paths. These "Homes in harm's way," will be affected, it is only a question of when.

No hazardous land disclosure

Landslides and their devastating personal and financial costs remain a well-kept secret. County governments fail to warn residents and real estate purchasers of property-damaging landslide and unstable soil issues. Realtors are not obliged to reveal the region's high-risk hazard designation or the existence of the mapping program.

Rhetoric but no action

The North Carolina General Assembly passed the Hurricane Recovery Act in 2005 and this is what the legislators said about landslides:
Hurricanes Frances and Ivan wrought havoc upon Western North Carolina impacting the region on a scale not experienced before in that area of the State. Further...people could not know the landslide risks associated with their housing location because such maps are not readily available. The state needs to...prepare landslide mapping for the region so that homes may be built in safe areas.
The state has deliberately exposed Western North Carolina residents to avoidable hazards. The question is, when the next landslide disasters occur, will Washington provide the critical emergency funds?

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