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Summit on Ways Universities Can Prevent Major Losses from Disasters

by Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
posted October 21, 1998

Officials from Berkeley and a dozen other universities from around the country met yesterday (Oct. 20) on campus to launch a nationwide initiative that uses a partnership approach with government and the private sector to protect the nation's huge investment in research universities.

Leaders of universities threatened by disasters ranging from floods to earthquakes sat down with James Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and representatives from federal agencies and private sector sponsors to discuss a proposal for a disaster-resistant universities initiative. This new effort resembles FEMA's Project Impact launched last year to create disaster-resistant communities.

Through the program, FEMA would work with universities to assess their risk and help them find federal, state and private partners to fund campus improvements to better withstand a disaster.

"I am pleased that these university leaders and others here today have taken the initiative to plan for potential disasters," said Witt. "The work undertaken by these universities is vital to this country's economy and to the quality of life. The government as well as the private sector needs to ensure that its investments in universities and university research are protected."

Berkeley leads most universities in planning for a potential disaster. This advanced planning allowed the campus to compete successfully for a $42 million grant from FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to retrofit four campus buildings. The grant, announced by FEMA, the office of U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and the state Office of Emergency Services, was part of the FEMA allocation to deal with the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake.

"We are very grateful that the federal government is investing in preventive programs that help us lessen our losses in the event of a natural disaster," said Berdahl. "These funds, along with university, state and private support, will give a real boost to our efforts to address our massive seismic problems."

Yesterday's meeting is an important step in creating the broad institutional coalition necessary to secure a national commitment to the Disaster Resistant Universities Initiative proposed by FEMA.

Since Berkeley's seismic safety assessment last year, Berdahl has met numerous times with FEMA to discuss how best to secure the resources needed to seismically retrofit nearly 100 campus buildings. As a result of Berkeley's work in defining disaster priorities, the campus has designed a retrofit strategy that could be applied to various buildings on campus, and has been successful in applying for $42 million for mitigation measures for four buildings.

In addition, the campus is hoping for money from the state of California in the form of a bond measure -- Proposition 1A -- on the November ballot. The campus also is approaching private and corporate sources for help. Since 1993, Berkeley has raised $120 million in private support to retrofit, upgrade or replace buildings that are deemed seismically poor or very poor.

Because of UC Berkeley's comprehensive and strategic response to its potential for disaster, embodied in a 10-point SAFER (Seismic Action plan for Facilities Enhancement and Renewal) Program, FEMA is extolling the campus as a model for other universities around the country.

Under FEMA's guidance and with the input of other universities, UC Berkeley's work over the past year to plan for and secure funding for the seismic retrofitting of its facilities will be documented. This approach should help other universities interested in disaster preparedness. FEMA and the university also are sharing the cost of a $750,000 study by Professor of Architecture Mary Comerio to examine the potential economic losses to the campus, community and state if a major earthquake strikes the nearby Hayward Fault. It will further explore the impact of such a disaster on substantial federal and private research investments in Berkeley.

These losses range from rental income in the surrounding community to the loss of specialized collections on the campus or even the loss of valued faculty who might decide to leave the university if their laboratories are put out of commission.

Comerio and her colleagues hope to create a model for assessing all such losses and to use the information to establish campus priorities for retrofitting its buildings. FEMA plans to distribute Comerio's model broadly to help other universities and communities deal with their susceptible infrastructure.

The Disaster Resistant University initiative is an extension of Witt's commitment to taking preventive measures before a costly disaster occurs.


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