Tuesday, December 23, 1997
Government waste? Blame El Nino

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Usually I find other people's mail to be about as interesting as other people's dreams, other people's weight-loss programs and other people's vacation photos. In other words, not very.

But, since it is my money, I am utterly fascinated by the expensive package sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to my friend Ann Sullivan.

For no apparent reason, Ann was asked to help ''mitigate'' weather disasters. This means, according to the blizzard of paper that arrived in the mail, she's supposed to help develop a strategy to save us from El Nino.

Lunch, Mr. Lindner?

Ann says she has trouble mitigating her cats when they barf on the carpet and is ''flattered but confused.'' Plus, if she follows all the instructions from FEMA, she's afraid she'll have to quit her job at the University of Cincinnati bookstore and mitigate full time.

Chapter 1 of the instruction manual tells her to ''recruit the right team to make your community disaster-resistant.'' She was thinking maybe she should ask Procter & Gamble chief John Pepper to lunch. Or she was wondering whether this would be a good chance to meet Carl Lindner.

''It is important to identify an individual who is clearly able to spearhead the effort and take responsibility for the initiative - to make decisions, defuse the issues, secure resources and get things done,'' the manual counsels.

But this is only the beginning. Next comes ''hazard identification and hazard vulnerability.'' Her condominium sits atop a hill in Clermont County's Union Township, and so far the resident association hasn't had to concern itself with anything more disastrous than cracker crumbs in the pool.

''I think this must be a big mistake,'' Ann says. ''Can you find out how they picked me?''

Michael Armstrong, FEMA's associate director for mitigation, told a government panel, ''I look at the concerns about El Nino as a window of opportunity for my agency to get inside people's heads a little bit.''

So maybe they've been wanting to get inside a bookstore employee's head a little bit. For all I know, it may be top secret.

Feeling our pain

I asked Linda Facia at FEMA Region V in Chicago - responsible for serving Ohio, according to Ann's instruction booklet. A very pleasant and helpful woman, Ms. Facia told me that this is part of Project Impact, a new initiative by FEMA's national director, James Lee Witt.

There is a full-page, four-color photograph of Mr. Witt with President Clinton on page 26 of Ann's booklet. The president is biting his lower lip and Mr. Witt looks as though he also may be feeling our pain, but there is no explanation.

The booklet is 32 pages, magazine size. Printed on heavy, expensive stock, it's like an annual report from a prosperous company, four-color with an appendix of 12 tabbed worksheets plus a glossy cover.

It's stuffed inside a heavy, plastic case along with 13 other brochures and booklets, including Wildfire - Are You Prepared? and hurricane safety tips.

Ann thinks her home is probably even less likely to have a wildfire or a hurricane than it is to have a flood. So why was she chosen?

Nobody knows.

It's not a mass mailing. ''They are supposed to be mailed to corporate and community leaders,'' Ms. Facia says.

Cincinnati is not even one of the pilot cities chosen for Project Impact. So I guess for now, we'll have to depend on community leaders in Seattle and Oakland and Pascagoula, Miss., to save us from El Nino.

Anyway, Ann says she'd be happy to pass the stuff along to a community leader in, say, Pascagoula if FEMA gives her a name and address. She may not be a disaster expert, but she knows how to mitigate waste.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM radio (91.7 MHz), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.