Project Impact: Saving lives is what it's all about
(from Maine Townsman, April 2001)
by Larry Nadeau, Public Works Director, and Lisa Parker, Finance Director, City of Saco

This winter was straight out of a Dickens novel - swirling blizzard-like conditions, howling gale force winds, and below zero temperatures. And just like the ghost of winters past - the deadly ice storm of 1998 - comes back to haunt our memories and remind us all that we are at the mercy of the forces of nature. Eighty percent of Maine's population was without electrical power during the '98 Ice Storm and five deaths were attributed to it. This year's above average snowfall and cold temperatures have created much anxiety over the potential for spring flooding.

For Maine, like many regions of the country, dealing with extreme weather conditions is a fact of life, but with increasing growth in population, housing, schools and businesses, severe weather can exact a greater toll these days. Experience has shown that public awareness and disaster mitigation efforts have helped to save lives and reduce the damages caused by catastrophic events.

That is why the City of Saco was chosen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to join a nationwide effort to become a disaster-resistant community known as Project Impact. Instead of waiting for disasters to occur, Project Impact communities initiate mentoring relationships, private and public partnerships, public outreach and disaster mitigation projects to reduce damage from potentially devastating disasters. Since its inception in 1997, nearly 250 communities and 2,500 business partners have embraced Project Impact.

Saco, a small resort town with a population of approximately 17,000, is situated along the southern coast of Maine and is traversed by the Saco River. Subjected to hurricanes, Nor'Easters, flooding, heavy snow and ice, Saco has had its share of disaster events. Saco ranks seventh in the state of Maine for claims in the National Flood Insurance Program because of repetitive losses. But since its inception into FEMA's Project Impact program, the City of Saco and its residents have experienced a number of improvements in disaster mitigation. For example, flood prevention initiatives have reduced Saco's Community Rating System (CRS) from 10 to 8 in just over one year, resulting in a 10 percent savings on flood insurance rates for residents and businesses. Saco is now on the verge of receiving a CRS rating of seven.

Through consistent work efforts, Saco has earned recognition as a mitigation leader at the regional and national levels. At an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. late last year, Saco was named one of 10 Project Impact Star Communities in the United States. Then FEMA Director James L. Witt said, "Project Impact is about saving lives, protecting property, protecting the economic and social fabric of communities and saving citizens the heartache of disaster. Communities like Saco are making great strides in educating and protecting its residents from disasters and shine as an inspiration for other communities to follow." 

Saco also received the 2000 "Mentoring Community Award" from FEMA Region I which includes the state of Maine. According to Setti Warren, Regional Director for FEMA Region I, "Saco exemplifies what every community can achieve when it works together to reduce the devastating effects of disasters."

Among the key actions that Saco has taken to safeguard the community from the dangers of flooding, hurricanes, winter weather and disaster situations include:
o The organization and participation of a growing list of 100 partners (including business, civic, and government entities and individuals) who have banded together to assist and become more involved in disaster mitigation procedures and policies that will benefit the Saco community.
o Drafted an "All Hazard Mitigation Plan" with short- and long-term risk reduction activities identified;
o Changed the storm design level from a 25-year to 50-year level;
o Prepared a "Standard Specification" manual for all new and existing developments; 
o Received a $30,000 grant from FEMA to initiate a multi-year Coordinating Technical Partnership (CTP)
o Updated the community's comprehensive plan with references about mitigation and the protection of environmentally sensitive areas, especially wetlands and ravines/water courses;
o Awarded a $30,000 FEMA/Private grant to undergo a data continuity assessment program that was conducted pro bono last year by EverGreen Data Continuity, Inc. The assessment provided critical information and insights about how the city could better protect its city, budget, tax, police and fire computer data storage and operations during a disaster or interruption. The results of the study in Saco, which served as a pilot program for the nation, were presented to a national FEMA conference in Washington, D.C. 
o Conducted a FEMA $100,000 Flood Mitigation Assistance Program for local residents to undertake flood-proofing measures;
o Planned and nearly completed construction of the $2.6 million Sawyer Brook Drainage Improvement Project to reduce flooding of business and residential areas in the Sawyer Brook watershed. Seventy-five percent of the project is being funded through FEMA's 404 Flood Hazard Mitigation Program and a Project Impact Grant and 25 percent is being locally funded. This vitally important project will be dedicated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 8, 2001;
o Received $137,000 in grants from FEMA for Park Street at North Street and Central Street drainage improvements;
o Received a $35,000 grant from FEMA for Therrien Avenue drainage improvements; 
o Assisted with implementing a first-of-its-kind Emergency Management curriculum within County Technical College system; and 
o Implemented the Masters of Disaster safety curriculum in schools to teach children how to effectively deal with disaster and emergency situations.

The new school curriculums both at the college and grade school levels are an especially important accomplishment through Project Impact. Teaching children how to prepare for and handle emergency or disaster situations and later offering them career opportunities in this growing field will go a long way in ensuring our communities will be safe and secure for future generations. With lives and property at stake, dealing with emergencies and disasters must not be a guessing game. Research studies indicate that of all people affected by disaster, 40 percent are children under the age of thirteen.

Produced by the American Red Cross and the AllState Foundation, the Masters of Disaster curriculum contains information and activities developed by national disaster and education experts focusing on general preparedness, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and lightning. The curriculum has been successfully introduced to first, fourth, and seventh grade classes at Saco's public schools and one parochial school. Superintendent of Schools Elaine M. Tomaszewski said, "We believe this is a worthwhile program which will provide vital skills that may prove to be lifesaving, and the program can easily become part of a student's learning experience."

Another major result of Project Impact was the creation of a web site, related to Saco's Department of Public Works and Project Impact. How to prepare for an ice storm or blizzard; how to teach children to safely dial 9-1-1 in an emergency; what to do in the event of a fire or flood; and how to develop a family disaster plan are among the many topics included in the web site and its links. The site also covers non-emergency, but none-the-less important information such as bulky waste disposal; parking bans, traffic detours and road closings; DPW policies and a complete listing of Project Impact news and activities. Project Impact information also can be found at the web sites and

While there are many tangible results of Project Impact evident in the community of Saco, there also are immeasurable benefits that can be attributed to this program. Attitudes are changing in and around Saco. There is a renewal of community spirit, teamwork, and a sense of hope being fostered by Project Impact that is enabling communities to get through the toughest situations and remain whole. The common goal of Project Impact, "to make our community as safe as possible," has united everyone involved, including the mayor's office, the finance department, the public works department, the fire and police departments and other public safety agencies, schools, civic organizations, businesses and the people of Saco.

New important partnerships and community alliances are being built to improve safety conditions for citizens, thanks in large part to FEMA's Project Impact. More than 100 businesses, government agencies, organizations, and individuals have become partners with Saco's Project Impact and the momentum is growing every day. The strength of the Project Impact team in Saco is helping to build an awareness of the importance of disaster mitigation that is unprecedented. 

The American Public Works Association, of which Saco is a member, promotes public works as a key partner in all aspects of disaster activities. The APWA has made emergency preparedness training available to Saco. This interaction has provided career professionals and the Saco community a wealth of information and emergency training that is being put to use every day. Several York County municipal public works departments have completed discussions on a mutual aid agreement to share equipment and personnel during disasters and non-disaster public works projects - a first in the state. Much of the success of this initiative is owed to the City of Orlando, Florida. Orlando's public works department shared information on its mutual aid program through Project Impact.

Another positive step toward preparedness is an agreement with Old Orchard Beach and Biddeford. Known as the TriCommunity Committee, mayors and council members from the three communities have forged an agreement to seek cooperative efforts, where possible, in purchasing and project developments. One such accomplishment completed by the three public works departments was the purchase of a storm and sewer drain television inspection system mounted in a City of Saco retired ambulance. Officials see this as a tremendous mitigating tool for Project Impact since they will be able to find problems within the sanitary and drainage systems prior to a serious problem occurring such as a break in a water main or sewer pipe.

In addition to forging and improving community relationships, Project Impact also has had a positive influence on department personnel involved in helping to facilitate the program. Saco officials have noticed that more responsive and professional employee development is occurring. This translates into expanded knowledge of infrastructure requirements and a willingness to care for and handle the small details that often go unnoticed and become costly to service later on, especially during an emergency event.

With the many accomplishments Saco has experienced in the short time it has been involved in Project Impact, it is unsettling at best to know that the Bush administration has proposed cutting the $25 million Project Impact program out of the 2002 budget. Without the vital guidance, structure, and financial funding that FEMA has provided to Saco through Project Impact, many of these accomplishments could not have occurred. So much progress has been made through this program that every day a new natural or technological disaster is reported by the news in another city, state or nation, we thank FEMA for Project Impact because we know what can happen without it.

The day that President Bush proposed to eliminate the federal program that has been so beneficial to the City of Saco, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Northwest, 35 miles southwest of Seattle, which ironically, also is a Project Impact community just like Saco. Following the quake, the Governor of the State of Washington declared a state of emergency and there were more than 250 injuries reported and damages that may cost billions of dollars. Saco Mayor William Johnson, a staunch supporter of Project Impact, was quoted in the Journal Tribune as saying, "I bet that the mayor out there sure is glad the city participated in the program and did prepare for disasters."

No matter what tomorrow may bring, Saco has changed for the better and is better prepared for a safer future through Project Impact. Every community across the nation should have that opportunity.

For more information on Project Impact, contact Larry Nadeau at 284-6641 or Lisa Parker at 282-1032.