[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[February 26, 1998]
[Pages 298-300]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks in a Roundtable Discussion on Disaster Assistance in Oakland, 
February 26, 1998

    The President. First, let me thank all of you for meeting with me 
today. I'm very interested in this project. One of the things that I 
promised myself when I ran for President was that if I got elected, I 
would give this country a first-rate disaster response operation through 
FEMA. When I was the Governor of my home State, Mayor Harris' other home State--[laughter]--and Mr. Witt was my State emergency services director, we had 
the highest frequency of tornadoes in the country. And we had some very 
serious flooding and a lot of other natural disaster problems. And it 
seemed to me that the United States Government owed it to the American 
people, basically in a completely nonpolitical way, to have the highest 
level of confidence, as well as common sense and humanity, in response 
to emergencies. And we have worked very hard to give that to the 
American people, and unfortunately, we've had more opportunities to 
practice in California than any other place in the country because of 
all the difficulties that the people here have faced. But it's terribly 
    Yesterday I was in Florida dealing with the worst tornado there in 
50 years and had, as you know, almost 40 people killed there. And we are 
very well aware of all the difficulties of El Nino here. But I just 
wanted to begin by saying I think this is an important part of our 
national obligation to one another, to deal with these things in the 
proper way.
    Now, I want to talk a little bit about the project here, but first 
let me say that the people of California and now the people of Florida 
are giving the people of the United States some very painful examples of 
the excesses of this El Nino, which is apparently the strongest one in 
this century. We are doing what we can to help. Mr. Witt and I have been talking about this now ever since we were 
in Florida yesterday and flying up here.
    Based on his recommendations, we're adding four more California 
counties to the disaster list: Los Angeles, Orange, Stanislaus, and 
Trinity. We're announcing that all 35 counties are available for public 
assistance, and they will be eligible also, the ones on the disaster 
list, for individual assistance and for help with debris removal and 
other emergency proceedings.
    The Federal Highway Administrator is here. We are releasing another 
$20 million, in addition to the $20 million announced last week by the 
Vice President, to help rebuild the road 
system. FEMA has already sent about $5 million for disaster housing 
assistance. And SBA, HUD, and Labor are also providing support. But we 
are going to provide another million and a half dollars for emergency 
watershed funding from DOA to repair flood damage in Santa Cruz and San 
Mateo counties. So we're going to do the very best we can to help deal 
with these problems now.
    The thing that I think is important as I have seen Californians deal 
with flooding, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, you name it--I told 
somebody after the Northridge earthquake that California had been 
through so much I kept waiting for the pestilence to appear. [Laughter] 
But one of the things that I've been most impressed by is how quickly 
some visionaries in California have moved from dealing with the 
disasters to trying to prevent them and trying to accept the fact that 
there is a high probability of natural hazards in this area but that 
with enough work they might be prevented, or at least some significant 
number of them might be prevented from becoming devastating disasters.

[[Page 299]]

    For every dollar we spend on prevention, we save two or more in 
future disaster cost. We know that. Therefore, the balanced budget plan 
that I presented contains $50 million to launch this Project Impact to 
build disaster-resistant communities through partnerships with the 
private sector, volunteer groups, community organizations. FEMA has 
already launched seven of these pilot projects, and we will have a 
Project Impact community in every State by this fall. So I think that's 
very good news.
    I'm glad that Harris Wofford is here. Our 
AmeriCorps volunteers are going to be joining our efforts by the spring 
break initiative, coordinating disaster reduction efforts in communities 
of Project Impact. And in Oakland, the Collaborative Agencies for 
Responding to Disasters is joining the Corporation for National Service 
and FEMA to mobilize hundreds of high school students to carry out 
preventive measures in over 500 low-income and elderly housing 
complexes. That's very, very good news.
    It seems to me that Project Impact can become a real model for every 
community in the country. And it's an example of my idea of the proper 
role of Government as partner, as catalyst, as giving people the tools 
to deal with their own challenges and make the most of their own lives.
    In Seattle, the business community has matched a million dollars 
that we put into Project Impact with $6 million in private money. And 
they're undertaking a really very impressive comprehensive effort. We'll 
have 50 Project Impact communities, and we need 500 business partners by 
the end of this year. I hope we will get them. I think we will.
    Let me say I look forward to the discussion today. I want to hear 
from you. I want to get the best ideas I can about what else we can do. 
We want common sense, innovative opportunities to help people deal with 
profoundly human challenges.
    Mr. Witt, you might want to give us a 
little update on where we are in southern California, and then we'll 
just go around the table. I'd like to hear from everybody here.

[At this point, the roundtable discussion began.]

    The President. One of the things that I hope will happen is that 
Project Impact and all the communities where it operates will be able to 
get a higher percentage of people who are willing to basically continue 
to be prepared, continue to train, and then continue to do things like 
you just talked about on the gardening on a systematic basis.
    Interestingly enough, this is a problem that is common to all human 
affairs. If you think about the last time something bad happened to you 
in some way, the longer ago it was the less likely you are to worry 
about it anymore. It's just human nature in all human affairs. And one 
of the big challenges we have in maintaining the readiness of our 
military forces is the fact that, since the cold war, the general 
perception is that, well, there are all these things we don't have to 
worry about.
    And then you say, ``Well, why don't you have to worry about it?'' 
Well, because you have this military force. But if all of a sudden you 
forget it and you act like you don't have to worry about it, then one 
day you don't have it anymore.
    So this is a common problem in all human affairs. And one of the 
things that I was so excited about this thing was that maybe we could 
actually get a high density of people, real citizens in every community 
in all these various walks of life we've been hearing about here, who 
will at least maximize the chance that people will be ready the next 
time something bad happens, and that they will have done as many things 
as you can possibly do to minimize the damage of whatever it is that 
    That's all you can do in human life. The rest of it's up to the good 
Lord. That's something we just--there aren't any guarantees. But I think 
it's very important what you're saying, and I just hope that this 
project will get more people either like you or to listen to you.

[At this point, the roundtable discussion continued.]

    The President. One of the things I was going to suggest--and it may 
be a hair-brained idea; wouldn't be the first one I had--but the 
position you're in with this mudslide business, it's not as if you 
deliberately ignored a clear and present danger. For example, the last 
time we had a big flood at home in the 1990's, we had all these little 
towns just flooded out along the Arkansas River. Now, there were some 
people who had built in the 100-year flood plain and some people who 
built below that, that basically, reasonably should have known that 
every 25 years that was going to wipe out. I don't think we had three 
100-year floods in about 10 years,

[[Page 300]]

so I guess we can wait 300 years before we have another one. [Laughter]
    But anyway, it's not that sort of situation. It's just a question of 
what happens if you have a vulnerable ecostructure, as you do in 
California, and you have a lot of people that have to live somewhere; 
there always may be kind of unforeseen circumstances. And one of the 
things that I was kind of interested in was whether you might be able to 
devise some partnerships with insurance companies where you get all the 
people involved in litigation, all the people involved in all this and 
then you say, okay, give me the laundry list of things everybody in this 
neighborhood has to do, but if they do it, then you can get kind of a 
blanket insurance policy. Even if it's got a fairly sizable deductible, 
it would protect you against what you're worried about now.
    And I think that in a place like California where--see, all these 
things relate to one another. For example, if you have an earthquake 
that doesn't damage your home profoundly, but loosens the foundation a 
little bit, then you're more vulnerable to a mud-slide that may come 
along 6 years later. I mean, all these things reinforce one another. And 
so if there could be some way that, growing out of this Project Impact, 
there could be some more comprehensive look at insurance plus prevention 
plus mitigation plus all these things going together, I think it might 
bring a lot of peace of mind to all those people on your block now, for 
example, that are worried to death they're going to have a study and the 
study's going to say, come up with 3 times your annual income if you 
want to save your house. That's like saying if I were 25, I could jump 
higher. [Laughter] It's nice to know, but you've got a pretty good idea 
before you do the study.
    Let's talk a little more about mitigation, though. I know a lot of 
you have been involved in this.

[At this point, the roundtable discussion continued.]

    The President. Well, let me say this. One of the things--I would 
like to ask you all to think about this, and I want to call on our host 
mayor here in a minute to close, but I--one of the things that I would 
like to see come out of this--keep in mind, I have asked for a 
substantial amount of money but spread across the Nation the $50 million 
is not a great deal of money--what we want to do is help get as many of 
these projects put together as possible. And if they work, then you can, 
coming up out of this project here and in other places like it, kind of 
give us a sense and provide evidence that if we shifted some of our 
spending programs priorities--whether it's in housing or highways or 
whatever--to do more prevention, this is something that would not only 
meet with widespread public support but actually that the money would be 
well spent because you've actually gone through a grassroots planning 
process, and you know kind of what needs to be done; you've identified 
the things and you can guarantee that we will get that 2 to 1 return we 
were talking about.
    So I hope you'll all be thinking about this. As you go along, you do 
all this work you're going to do anyway just think about--just for 
example on this whole business of vegetation. You know, in addition to 
planting gardens, there are plenty of places that, if they were more 
properly vined, you'd have all kinds of other stuff going: You would 
reduce soil erosion; you would reduce the impact of a flood. Now, if the 
flood is big enough, it will wash anything away, but we're talking about 
within range.
    All these things there are possibilities for, should this be part of 
the conservation reserve program, for example, the agriculture program, 
all these kind of things. There's a gazillion options we could have here 
that will present themselves to us as you work through this.

[At this point, the roundtable discussion continued.]

    The President. This has been very interesting to me, and it's a 
wonderful reaffirmation of the citizenship of all of you, not only our 
AmeriCorps people, but all this is really ultimately about citizen 
service. I thank you very much. And we'll try to do our part, get this 
going, and get it going across the country.
    Thank you. Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:24 p.m. in the auditorium at the Scottish 
Rite Community Center. In his remarks, he referred to Mayor Elihu Mason 
Harris of Oakland.