There were smiles and cheers in various North Coast quarters Feb. 12 after the news came in that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had approved a shared hazard mitigation plan for the Cambria community services and healthcare districts.
Sheri Eibschutz, co-preparer of the plan, emailed those who’d worked it saying, “we have officially received FEMA approval” and the federal agency is “happy with the hazard mitigation plan and all of the proposed mitigation actions.”
Eibschutz partners with Bob Neumann in the Category 5 Professional Consultants planning group in Los Osos.
Among those high-fiving the Cambria Community Services District and Cambria Community Healthcare District was Bill Siembieda, city planning professor at Cal Poly. He congratulated two districts via email “for partnering to make the Cambria community a safer place. Now, on to applying for hazard mitigation grant program awards” and implementing “all the good ideas.”
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Cambria’s approval means the two local agencies can now apply for, and possibly get, emergency preparedness grants based on federally declared emergencies anywhere in the state.
“Now” is a key word, because the clock is ticking: The deadline to submit proposals for the next round of grant awards is March 15.
According to the county’s Emergency Services manager, Ron Alsop, “there are several types of mitigation grants,” but an applicant “MUST have a FEMA approved and adopted” plan to be eligible for the funding.
He emphasized that “these grants are extremely competitive.”
Another possible hurdle is that the cash-strapped districts would have to pay 25 percent of the cost of any hazard-mitigation projects approved for grants.
What is a hazard mitigation plan?
The basic premise of hazard mitigation is that it’s better to prepare for emergencies, reduce risk and fix probable trouble spots ahead of time, rather than repairing the damage after disaster strikes.
As emergency management expert Ken Topping of Cambria said, “Build it right or fix it so it’s built right, so you won’t have to replace it after it falls down.”
To help governmental agencies shoulder those often-daunting costs, the feds issue grants for approved projects; the grants are administered by the state Office of Emergency Services.
The district boards are to discuss the possibilities and priorities soon.
The topic is on CCSD’s agenda for its meeting Thursday, Feb. 22.
In preparation, directors Aaron Wharton and David Pierson (the district’s fire ad hoc committee) were to have met two days earlier “to really dial down on grant opportunities that represent the highest probability of success for both the community of Cambria and the CSD,” according to district General Manager Jerry Gruber’s Feb. 20 email.
Among the dozens of suggestions listed on the CCSD’s portion of the hazard-mitigation plan (HMP) are some designated as high priority, such as protecting the district’s current water-storage tanks, implementing a forest-management plan, improving water flow for fighting fires, Fire Department staffing, improving fuel-reduction efforts, acquiring a portable water tank and other equipment for the Fire Department, and doing hazmat training.
The HMP also was to have been on the CCHD’s meeting agenda for Wednesday, Feb. 21.
Listed high priorities for CCHD include studying location options (such as redoing the existing buildings on Main Street or building a new one), capital improvement plans for ambulances and emergency equipment, specialized training for staff, a drainage study for the district’s Main Street property and doing wildfire fuel reduction.
Both districts consider that studying the area’s seismic safety is a high priority.
Community members, officials and consultants have been discussing, drafting, submitting and getting approval for the plan for more than two years. Various community members, representatives of the two districts, Cambria FireSafe Focus Group, county FireSafe Council and other agencies have been involved from the get-go.
Shirley Bianchi, who leads the council and is a trustee on the healthcare district board, said Feb. 20 that it “is a major step for the North Coast to have its own plan, and another major step to have CCSD and CCHD cooperating in the efforts to get this accomplished. I think there are many things the two districts can do together to save money and improve services.”
Topping, a former CCSD general manager, helped to guide the HMP process. He hopes the two districts will line up their ducks and get their grant applications in soon.
As he wrote in a Feb. 16 email interview, noting the March 15 deadline, “It's time to submit ‘notices of interest’ on high-priority mitigation projects eligible for grant funding,” based on the December wildfire disasters in California. With the tight deadline, “the district boards will need to discuss and take action very soon to authorize those submissions.”
What does approval really mean?
When the feds declare an official disaster after a flood, wildfire, earthquake or other calamity has damaged a specific area, owners of homes and businesses affected by the disaster can apply for low-interest assistance loans.
Likewise, governmental agencies can apply for grants, both to repair damage to infrastructure and to prevent future destruction if another disaster should strike.
A community doesn’t have to have been burned out, drenched by a tsunami, inundated by floodwaters, rocked by a damaging earthquake, hit with economic hardship by the event or even be in the same area of the state as the disaster to be eligible for grants to help prevent future damage.
As Alsop explained, “when the President declares a major disaster, one of the programs that can and generally is made available is hazard mitigation,” and “even though a particular disaster might only impact a certain area of the state, any jurisdiction in the state may apply.”
But remember, there’s a catch: To qualify for those grants, the governmental agency has to have a FEMA-approved Local Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Now, CCSD and CCHD have the shared plan, and the next steps are up to the directors/trustees, respectively, district staffers and consultants, with input from interested members of the public.