SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Special Report

April 28, 2013

Money spent beforehand blunts the impact of disasters

Gayland Kitch doesn’t feel a bit sheepish about not having a storm cellar, even though he is the director of emergency management in Moore, Okla., which faced one of the most violent tornadoes on record, with wind speeds greater than 300 mph, in May 1999.

It isn’t that Kitch is resisting the $3,000 or so it would take to build. It’s that during tornado weather, he’s not home. He’s at the office, which has its own shelter. His wife is there, too, volunteering. When their kids lived at home, they came, as well.

Kitch isn’t stupid, though. When he retires, he said, “I will probably install one.”

A lot of people in Moore have done just that since the 1999 tornado killed 43 people in the Oklahoma City area. Kitch says more than 10 percent of Moore’s homes – about 2,500 – now have a safe room or shelter. Helping homeowners make the investment: A federal program that has paid up to $2,000 of the cost.

Every person has to make decisions about what to spend on preparedness for natural disasters. Buy a house with a view, or live a few blocks from the beach? Build a storm shelter or make friends with a neighbor who has one? Get a weather radio? Buy earthquake insurance? Towns, too, must set building codes and choose whether to restrict the use of cheap building materials. They decide whether to allow development in flood plains, and whether to invest in sophisticated emergency equipment.

These are all down payments on the cost of a disaster. The rule of thumb is that every dollar spent on preparedness saves $4 in recovery costs, according to a report by the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Mutihazard Mitigation Council, which others confirm. That’s $4 taxpayers won’t have to spend.

In perhaps the closest thing to a bailout for those of us too small to matter, the government increasingly covers the costs of disasters.

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