What if … ?
Until now, the federal approach to disaster management focused on identifying, analyzing and mitigating damage after an event. Believing that a good disaster management plan can often result in less death and destruction, the Washington-based Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is implementing the hazard mitigation planning sections of the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 (DMA2K), which requires all state, local and tribal governments to submit hazard mitigation plans to remain eligible for certain hazard mitigation grants.
The original deadline for governments to secure their FEMA-approved plans was Nov. 1, 2004, but was extended to May 1, 2005. States that do not have a FEMA-approved standard plan by the deadline will be ineligible for monies from three grant programs: Flood Mitigation Assistance Grants, Pre-Disaster Mitigation Competitive (PDM-C) Grants, and Hazard Mitigation Program Grants, which are available to implement measures after a major disaster.
“[FEMA’s new rules] shifted the emphasis to mitigation before an event occurs, so that preventive measures may be linked to planning and budgeting, comprehensive planning, economic development, etc.,” says Terry Baker, emergency management specialist on the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Planning Team. “Mitigation is everybody’s business and should be considered in all decision making, not just the emergency manager’s.”
FEMA officials hope that money spent wisely for hazard mitigation means less spent for disaster relief. By requiring states to create plans that meet specific and streamlined requirements to receive FEMA hazard mitigation funds, the agency can see that its dollars are spent on more effective mitigation. “FEMA’s desire was to get all communities thinking about mitigation, talking about mitigation and planning for mitigation activities,” says Butch Kinerney of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/FEMA public affairs.
No pain, no gain
Creating a complete and comprehensive state hazard mitigation plan is challenging. Ideally, the best plans solicit ideas from a variety of sources and connect fire, emergency medical services, law enforcement, emergency management, public health, environmental protection, and other agencies at the local, tribal, state and federal levels. “The more horizontal integration and vertical integration we achieve, the better off we are,” says Shawn Fenn, a FEMA program specialist.
However, collaboration can be difficult to accomplish. “Dealing with [having to create a hazard mitigation plan] is our agency’s bread and butter,” says Kurt Pickering, public information officer for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA). “That is less so for agencies whose day-to-day routines are about things other than disasters and emergencies.”
When TEMA asked local governments to contribute to its plan, it found that some agencies did not work on the plan as seriously as they should have. “Aside from those [problems], the other main challenge was documenting the risk assessment,” Pickering says. The hazard mitigation portion of DMA2K requires states to incorporate areas of local risk assessment planning into the master strategy of their plans. Additionally, the local strategies must align with state priorities, a difficult thing to accomplish when both the state and local governments must be working on their plans at the same time to meet the FEMA deadline.
Staff levels and time constraints have hampered the efforts of some state and local hazard mitigation officers, especially those with small or part-time staffs. “Just getting the data within the time frames was a challenge,” says Vermont State Hazard Mitigation Officer (SHMO) Ray Doherty. Vermont Emergency Management employs only two people for mitigation and planning, and many local governments in the state have only part-time or volunteer mitigation staffers. Despite the shortage of personnel, Vermont’s plan was approved before the deadline, which keeps it eligible for project grant funding.
However, plowing through the rigorous planning routine itself may provide the greatest benefits to states and cities. Connecticut SHMO Doug Glowacki says that his state’s first hazard mitigation plan was completed in the early 1980s, with updates in 1985, 1990, 1993, 1996 and 2000. He says continuous revising and updating to meet the DMA2K requirement helps new people become familiar with mitigation measures and keeps even the most seasoned hazard mitigation team members up-to-date. Likewise, the completed plan also helps train local police and fire personnel.
Part of the solution
Rather than going it alone, some small communities, especially those with limited resources, are joining with other jurisdictions to construct hazard mitigation plans. “Towns on Cape Cod have a lot of coastal storm issues,” says former Massachusetts SHMO Richard Thibedeau. By using regional planning agencies, area communities built multi-jurisdictional plans with county-wide goals that could cover up to 30 towns. Each town then created an annex to the regional plan.
“The multi-jurisdictional plans give priority to retrofitting flood damaged houses, elevating utilities and purchasing flood damaged properties by offering willing sellers the value of their home the day before the storm event,” Thibedeau says. If the property owner opts to accept the payment offered for his or her destroyed home, the land will not be redeveloped but will rather be preserved as open space.
Additionally, small towns can agree to share resources and equipment through a multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan. For example, Ellington, Conn., was faced with an ammonia leak at a local food processing plant in October 2003. By being a member of the Capital Region Emergency Planning Committee, a 34-town consortium, the small community was able to use a mobile command post from another member town.
Other states have attacked the problem of limited local staffing and technological resources another way. Because state plans depend on knowing local governments’ priorities and plans for hazard mitigation, some states have created statewide positions to assist local communities. In West Virginia, where many local hazard mitigation staffs are part-time or have multiple duties beyond hazard mitigation planning, state SHMO Barry Macciocca found it helpful to place three “Project Officers” at the state level to help the local governments complete the technical aspects of their hazard mitigation plans. Macciocca’s efforts resulted in a FEMA-approved state Standard Hazard Mitigation Plan, which includes a greater number of approved local plans than many larger, better-staffed states.
Macciocca also found that assessing risks gave the state a better picture of where it needed to focus its attention. “I believe we are the only state that has [listed] single-family [home] fire events [as] a hazard category,” says Macciocca, who found that insurance companies were leaving the state because of the increasing number of those types of fires. By rating single-family home fires as a high-risk category in the state plan, the state was required to develop strategies that promote fire awareness and address arson. Additionally, by shifting the focus on preventing single-family home fire incidents from the local to the state level, local fire marshals could ask the state for help in finding funds for hazard mitigation projects that involved fire awareness education.
The looming FEMA deadline also prompted some state and local hazard mitigation teams to research the variety of planning tools at their disposal. Although FEMA avoided creating any standard templates for mitigation planning, it published a series of “How To” guides, each of which emphasizes the importance of planning.
Oklahoma’s SHMO, Connie Dill, says her hazard mitigation team used a Web-based program, mitigation plan.com, that helped it assess risks and use GIS mapping for the state plan and for several local communities. “What’s nice is that the local plans wrap up into a county plan, which, in turn, wraps up into the state plan,” she says.
It is a big thing
Because South Carolina is prone to hurricanes, the primary motivating factor for complying with FEMA’s requirements was for the state to be eligible for the agency’s hazard mitigation funding, says South Carolina’s SHMO Shawn Putnum. Planning was difficult, but he feels it was worth the extra effort. “I believe the communities that participated in this process have a better understanding of their risks and vulnerabilities and have a blueprint to help them in future disasters,” he says.
FEMA officials hope that by researching and writing, and collaborating and implementing hazard mitigation plans, people at every level of the process will develop a greater awareness of their state’s needs and vulnerabilities. And by requiring states to update their plans every three years, and locals every five years, those communities will be creating living documents that will not just gather dust on a shelf.
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.
For more work, FEMA has more money
States that have a FEMA-approved Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan in place at the time of a major disaster declaration can receive up to nearly triple the federal hazard mitigation project funds. “For states that have done a good job and can justify that they have been wise stewards of the funds FEMA gave them, it’s well worth the investment of trying to get [an Enhanced Plan] together,” says Mark Stewart, a Washington state hazard mitigation strategist.
Like the FEMA-required Standard State Hazard Mitigation Plan, the Enhanced Plan must move from the conceptual to the specific. Starting with a thorough risk assessment that comprises identifying and profiling hazards, inventorying assets and estimating losses, planners then develop goals and objectives and a course of action for addressing the identified risks.
The Enhanced Plan goes a step further in the applicant’s grant money administration and management. To approve an Enhanced Plan, FEMA looks for the integration of mitigation planning into areas such as highway planning, smart growth initiatives and environmental protection. Applicant states must show a commitment to disaster mitigation by demonstrating their ability to complete mitigation projects on schedule, by showing that they have a system in place for determining the cost effectiveness of mitigation measures, by submitting complete and technologically feasible project applications, and by submitting timely quarterly progress and financial reports on the handling of federal mitigation funds they have received.
Like the Standard Plan, a state’s ability to submit an Enhanced Plan may be skewed toward states that have greater staffing and technical resources. However, with an added emphasis on the horizontal and vertical integration of services that FEMA strongly encourages, the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Planning Team believes that every state that wants an Enhanced Plan eventually should be able to meet that goal.
— Annie Gentile
Oklahoma plan promotes safe rooms
Tornado Alley earned its name in May 1999 when more than 70 twisters tore through Oklahoma and Kansas killing 44 people, injuring 800 and damaging more than 6,000 homes. When Oklahoma created a hazard mitigation plan to meet the new funding requirement from FEMA, it included a measure to promote building in-home storm shelters, becoming the first state in the country to do so.
The state’s Individual Safe Room Project #1465 created a safe room rebate program called “Oklahomans Can Survive” using Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds. The initiative, which began with educating homeowners on the benefits of building safe rooms, provided up to $2,000 to those who constructed safe rooms that met FEMA guidelines.
Rebates were awarded in three phases, with first priority given to those whose homes sustained the worst damage. Additional rebates were awarded for homes damaged in the designated disaster area. Finally, rebates were offered to any resident who wanted to build a safe room. More than 6,000 FEMA-approved residential safe rooms were installed through the original rebate program, providing thousands of Oklahomans refuge when a series of tornadoes and windstorms hit the state again in May 2003. In fact, the 1999 safe room initiative proved so successful, it prompted Governor Brad Henry to get additional HMGP funding for a second rebate program following the 2003 tornadoes.
— Annie Gentile
Oregon includes businesses in planning
Beyond loss of life and property, natural hazards also can cause severe and long-lasting economic disruption that can compromise a community’s ability to recover. Thus, many cities and states recognize the important stake the business community has in hazard mitigation planning.
Oregon’s State Hazard Mitigation Plan is unique because it falls under the umbrella of a larger initiative, the Partners for Disaster Resistance and Development: The Oregon Showcase Initiative (PDRD:OSI), which considers economic development issues in hazard mitigation planning. The initiative expands on a model program created by the non-profit association Tampa, Fla.-based Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS).
Instead of limiting the focus of hazard mitigation to bricks and mortar projects — like retrofitting bridges — Oregon’s plan also addresses the massive socio-economic effects on communities when natural hazards cause downtime for businesses. The partnership, which Oregon formed before the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 and its subsequent hazard mitigation planning requirements, can assist small businesses in a way that a typical state-and-local-focused hazard mitigation plan cannot. The IBHS “Open For Business” planning tool is a workshop series for small businesses that trains them in continuity planning following a disaster, says Andre LeDuc, state coordinator for PDRD:OSI. Using the four Cs of planning — coordination, communication, collaboration, and capacity building — the partnership helps businesses recover quickly after a natural disaster, thereby helping entire communities be more resilient.
— Annie Gentile