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Did 9/11 make America less safe from natural disasters?

A soldier walks past a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) truck in Prattsville, N.Y., after flooding caused by Hurricane Irene destroyed the town.

KAI RYSSDAL: The fires in Texas, believe it or not, give me a pretty good segue into today's story on the economic legacy of September 11th. It's been 10 years, and depending on how you count it, trillions of dollars since the attacks. That's part of what we talked about yesterday.

Today, we ask a different question: Has all the money being put into preventing man-made disasters -- terrorism -- made us less prepared for the disasters created by mother nature? We put Gregory Warner on a plane to Tulsa to go find out.


GREGORY WARNER: When I arrived in Tulsa, Okla., this August, it had been a busy week for Roger Jolliff, emergency manager for the city. Record heat, record drought, and grass so dry that a few sparks from a pickup truck set off a wildfire that burned 15 homes to the ground.

ROGER JOLLIFF: Since this fire, we've had two storm events that have caused damage in town.

One with hurricane-force winds that left 16,000 homes without power.

JOLLIFF: Then we had the event, counting my days, Tuesday night.

A near miss with a tornado that killed a woman just east.

JOLLIFF: So we stay busy!

Also in the past two weeks Jolliff's met with the FBI and Homeland Security about terrorism procedures. He spent several days devising a terrorism attack scenario to which local law enforcement will have to respond. Because when Jolliff isn't dealing with natural disasters, he's often planning for man-made ones.

JOLLIFF: 9/11 introduced us to a world of terrorism, it caused us to have to shift our emphasis. Keep in mind our local government only has so many resources, so many widgets of time to address things.

In other words he has less time to prepare for the tornadoes and floods he knows are coming.

Kathleen Tierney directs the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She says, as a country...

KATHLEEN TIERNEY: We are less prepared for natural disasters. Yes.

In the last decade the Department of Homeland Security has handed out $36 billion to states to buy special equipment like decon suits and chem labs and also do training in counter-terrorism. But the money didn't buy more personnel. Local budget cuts in Tulsa and other cities made emergency management departments smaller.

TIERNEY: If you're asking these same people who have a limited amount of time to prepare for exotic terrorist attacks, they're not going to have time to do the ordinary outreach that they need for the disasters that they will face.

JOLLIFF: If you quit educating the public about how to take care of themselves in disasters, sooner or later you're going to be less prepared as a community to deal with a disaster.

So let's look at Jolliff's workday before 9/11. In the late '90s, Tulsa joined a FEMA pilot project called Project Impact.

JOLLIFF: Project Impact is an initiative that we became involved in in 1998.

WARNER: I wish the radio audience could appreciate, but your eyes just light up when you say this "Project Impact" word.

JOLLIFF: OK well, I'm excited about this!

Here's why he's so excited: FEMA gave Project Impact grants to cities to fund projects that would reduce the costs of disasters before they happened. This was kind of a fantasy come true for Roger Jolliff or anyone who spends their days thinking about disasters. Suddenly, communities were coming together to talk about building tornado shelters, clearing flood plains or just helping homeowners install wind clips on their roofs.

JOLLIFF: Just lots of basic things -- many of which don't cost that much money! You just need to give some thought to and also make it the "cool thing" to do!

If disaster cool sounds oh so 1990s, well, this was the decade we weren't at war with anyone, except for global warming. The idea was to make preparedness a social good, like recycling.

Scott Gabriel Knowles teaches history at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

SCOTT GABRIEL KNOWLES: "There is no such thing as a natural disaster" -- became a kind of phrase used at that time, to say that, disasters are of our own making. We build in a flood plain. We build on a fault line. And that was really gathering steam throughout the 1990s. And so, then, 9/11 happens and it pushes that consensus aside.

After 9/11, FEMA was put under the Department of Homeland Security. That shifted the funding and also the culture of disaster planning.

KNOWLES: If terrorism is your overriding concern, that's a war-type concern, which means that secrecy is involved. It means that these community groups that can feed into preparedness in the 1990s, well you're not going to be able to listen to them quite as much.

After Hurricane Katrina he says that funding shifted slightly, but the closed-off military culture did not. Now, there is a guy in Washington trying to change that.

CRAIG FUGATE: My name is Craig Fugate. I'm the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Fugate's introduced something new to FEMA called the "whole communities approach." It's as much about bringing back what FEMA started before 9/11 as about trying to survive in the lean times of 2012.

FUGATE: With the limited resources that we're gonna have, we're gonna have to be more aggressive about bringing in team members that have resources and capabilities. That's going to be the private sector, volunteer organizations and other groups out there that have not traditionally been part of these teams.

What he's saying about limited resources? Hurricane Irene just kicked us into a record year for disaster spending. And FEMA's budget took a big hit this year. While counter-terrorism money was actually increased. So when I emailed FEMA later to tell me how many staffers they actually have building community preparedness, I was told: It's really more of a mindset than a specific program.

Meanwhile, one other thing that happened after 9/11. Remember the Federal Reserve untapped a stream of cheap money that spurred a housing boom? Well we built homes -- in flood plains, on fault lines, and in the paths of hurricanes and tornadoes -- which means that while we may be less prepared for natural disasters, there's more of us living in harm's way.

In Tulsa, I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace.


RYSSDAL: There's more about the economic legacy of September 11th tomorrow on the program. And there is an infographic featuring the facts and figures from Gregory's story -- showing how September 11th compares to other disasters, man-made as well as natural.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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