Former FEMA Director Witt to Lead N.Y. Catastrophe Coalition

September 19, 2005

James Lee Witt, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, today announced the formation of a state coalition to better prepare and protect New Yorkers from the consequences of a catastrophic storm, terrorist attack or other event.

The group’s goals incldue creation of “catastrophe funds” at the state and federal level which would be fudned by a portion of property insurance premiums.

“Our financial recovery mechanisms, which rely primarily on the private insurance market, federal assistance in the form of low-interest loans and a small handful of state catastrophe funds, need to be re-tooled so that they are capable of meeting the immeasurable costs of a true catastrophe,” Witt warned.

“ and its national counterpart will be working to help improve preparedness, mitigate potential damage and forge solutions that will help make sure that adequate financial resources are available to better recover from the destruction of full-force hurricanes, floods, terrorist attacks or other catastrophes,” the former FEMA director said.

“Catastrophe can strike at any time, whether we are prepared for it or not. We learned this here in New York on 9/11. And we were reminded about this just recently, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf region,” said Harold Raveche, Ph.D., president of the Stevens Institute of Technology and a charter member of the coalition. Stevens Institute is an international leader in engineering solutions for environmental and natural disasters. The university is located on New York Harbor in Hoboken, NJ.

Witt was joined at the announcement by Cherie Burns, author of The Great Hurricane: 1938, a recently-published account of the massive 1938 hurricane known as “The Long Island Express,” which wiped-out much of eastern Long Island. That storm, which made landfall 67 years ago this week, missed New York City by less than 10 miles, took 700 lives and left 63,000 people homeless.

“If the Long Island Express hurricane made landfall today — same spot, same force as in 1938 — it is estimated that the damages in Suffolk County alone would reach $24 billion — nearly the same impact as the terrorist attacks of 9/11,” Witt said.

“The densely populated and highly developed areas along America’s Eastern and Gulf Coasts are particularly susceptible to the ravages of nature. Actions to protect those, and other, areas must be taken by the state and federal governments, and must be taken now,” Witt said.

A report earlier this year by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicated that “a major event or series of events surpassing the over $20 billion in losses in Florida resulting from the 2004 hurricane season could severely disrupt insurance markets and impose substantial recovery costs of governments, businesses and individuals.”

“In light of the enormous destruction from Hurricane Katrina, the GAO’s warning should be viewed as an urgent call to action by policymakers at every level of government,” Witt added.

Joining Witt in the New York coalition are the New York State Building Officials Conference, Commission of Buildings and Fire Prevention Town of Brookhaven, Fireman’s Association of New York, New York State Fire Marshals and Inspectors Association, New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration, National Association of State Fire Marshals, Association of Fire Chiefs, New York City Department of Buildings, Stevens Institute of Technology, and the Allstate Insurance Company. Other public and private organizations are expected to join the effort.

The coalition said it will be working to:

* Strengthen financial protection for consumers by establishing special “catastrophe funds” at the state and federal level. A portion of property insurance premiums that corresponds with the catastrophic risk to be covered would be deposited into the catastrophe funds, where they would grow tax-free. No tax dollars would be used to support the funds, and insurance companies could not use these funds for any purpose other than to pay claims from catastrophes that exceed a certain threshold.

* Strengthen prevention and mitigation programs through stronger building codes and better enforcement to require new construction to better meet the challenges of catastrophic events. Other prevention and mitigation programs can also save lives and better protect property.

* Improve consumer education and consumer protections to make sure people are better prepared for catastrophes before they strike and to empower them to guard against scam artists who too often rush to the scene of disaster and take advantage of families at their deepest time of need.

* Improve the process of relief, recovery and rebuilding by developing new processes to stage and deploy essential relief materials and to make sure there are adequate building materials, supplies and licensed contractors available in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

* Creating a rigorous process of continuous improvement by establishing a commission of local, state and federal officials along with the private sector to review and assess recovery efforts after every disaster to identify ways to continually improve our ability to recover from catastrophes.

* Assure the viability of the private market and its ability to provide coverage to families, businesses and communities.

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