Government and business leaders from all three Southern Maryland counties on Monday signed an agreement that brings $300,000 in federal funds to help lessen the impact of man-made and natural disasters.

The leaders, working collectively through the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, signed on as members of Project Impact, an initiative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Project Impact aims to reinforce planning for disasters, whether they are caused by trucks spilling poisonous materials on highways or hurricanes driving storm surges up the Chesapeake Bay.

The program aims "to change the way America prepares and responds to the impact of natural disasters," said Rita Calvan, regional director of FEMA.

"This is all about prevention," Calvan told about 100 people assembled for Monday's signing at the Center for Business and Industry, on the campus of Charles County Community College near La Plata.

As part of the program, Southern Maryland officials plan to develop a detailed inventory of possible hazards, and resources available to mitigate a disaster's effect.

For example, a database might show what buildings lie in areas prone to flooding, as well as rescue or fire companies that could help with evacuations.

During a disaster, officials need all types of information, much of which is now scattered across different businesses, government agencies and military commands.

"Everyone has a piece of the puzzle. It's currently not integrated," said Robin Finnacom, an economic development officer with the Tri-County Council.

"It could be anything--where the telephone poles are, where Washington Gas has gas lines," Finnacom said. "All of that information needs to be available in times of crisis."

Also as part of the project, Southern Maryland officials plan to publicize the need to prepare for disasters, in part through the local offices of the American Red Cross.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) selected the three-county area as a Project Impact participant in fall 1998, in part because of the threat posed by hurricanes and nor'easters that can whip up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River.

"Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties were nominated . . . because of their collective history and need for a comprehensive plan to minimize devastation before the next severe storm hits," Glendening said.

Prince George's County has been nominated to become the next Project Impact community in Maryland, the governor said in a news release.

Maryland's first Project Impact community was Allegany County, chosen in 1997 to be among the initial seven Project Impact communities nationwide. The program now enrolls nearly 200 communities.

In Allegany County, in mountainous western Maryland, Project Impact has proved most useful in finding ways to head off flood damage, said Virginia McGann, the county's Project Impact officer.

Allegany County has received $700,000 in direct Project Impact funding, with an additional $300,000 to arrive soon, McGann said.

Project Impact allowed Allegany County to draw up plans and grant applications that have attracted more than $12 million in additional funding from state and federal programs, McGann said.

Allegany County, characterized by narrow valleys set beneath steep slopes, suffered severe flood damage in 1996. Among its Project Impact initiatives was the purchase of more than 100 homes set on flood plains, including an 18-unit trailer park set on seven acres.

"We demolish them. And we return the land to open space, so the flood plain can function as it's supposed to," McGann said.

In Southern Maryland, Project Impact includes the three county governments and the federal and state emergency management agencies.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County are to help with complex data integration, as is NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Private enterprises involved include the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors, which will support training in flood insurance, and Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, which will display Project Impact materials.

Several organizations will assist in preparing and maintaining the hazards and mitigation database. They include Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Bell Atlantic Corp. and the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative.