Natural disasters are merciless in the lessons they teach us. The lessons from earthquakes can be the most devastating. The hearts and prayers of all Americans go out to the victims of last week's horrible earthquake in northwestern Turkey.

Lest we become too certain of our own fortune in America, we should recall that disasters can surprise us as well. It was not that long ago that Hurricane Andrew taught southern Florida lessons it hasn't forgotten. And the hurricane "season" of June to December yearly encourages Floridians and all of us to be prepared.

But earthquakes don't have a season. They strike almost without warning. No pattern exists to the mosaic of fault systems that line the globe and our own country. No satellite imagery can mark the onset of an earthquake. In Izmit, Golcuk and other hometowns of northwestern Turkey, the fair weather does not mean that the disaster is over.

I still have disturbing memories of the Northridge earthquake that hit the Los Angeles area only five years ago. In classrooms all over the region, light fixtures and other nonstructural components of the buildings crashed onto children's desks. If the earthquake had happened later that morning, with school in session, the number of casualties would have been far too high. There is no question in my mind that we were fortunate.

The next time, we may not be. The next earthquake may happen at 2 o'clock on a workday afternoon. It may happen in a city that we know is at risk but one where we don't necessarily expect a big earthquake -- Seattle, Salt Lake City, Memphis. The next big earthquake could be America's version of Kobe, Japan: our bridges collapsed, our electricity out for weeks, our homes on fire from natural gas explosions.

The news reports from Turkey are numbing. All of us want to help alleviate the suffering, and we can in many ways. Americans who have trained and practiced the skills needed to extract victories from the rubble or begin the long process of recovery are helping in devastated Turkish cities, towns and neighborhoods. Many others are making donations to expedite relief. All this will help. But it will not change the losses.

The best way for us to help the victims of natural disasters is to help them avoid becoming victims in the first place. We know what natural hazards can do, but we also know how to prevent their effects. We know that the tragedy is felt most at the local level -- in your community, your neighborhood. This is why FEMA has launched its Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities. In dozens of communities all over America, businesses, citizens and local governments are taking action to reduce the potential for disasters and to create a safer future for their children.

In Seattle, homes are being made stronger to withstand earthquakes through a partnership of government, residents and financial institutions. The city of Berkeley, Calif., offers residents tax incentives to rehabilitate their homes, and the residents enact bonds to support the retrofitting of the city's public buildings. In Cape Girardeau, Mo., water supply systems are being made earthquake resistant; the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge will withstand an 8.2 earthquake when completed; and new commercial structures are being built to seismic standards. In Salt Lake City, a bond measure supports the rebuilding of the city's schools to a higher seismic standard.

It is critical that we increase the number of Project Impact communities and deepen the level of implementation in each. We must stay committed to new buildings and homes that resist earthquakes and hurricanes. We must do what we can to reduce our existing disaster potential. We must stay prepared to respond to the inevitable occurrence of earthquakes, floods and tornadoes.

The writer is director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.