Making Hazard Mitigation a Local Planning Priority

Experts Advise Cities of Any Size to Plan Ahead for Disaster

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James C. Schwab is chair-elect of the American Planning Association's Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division.

Jennifer Ellison is a planner in the Public Works department of Polk County, Iowa.

Doug Ongie is an environmental planner with Impact7G, based in Iowa.

Posted: Wednesday, November 7, 2018 5:00 pm

Through good urban planning, communities determine with logic and order how land is developed, how transportation systems work, and how water flows into and out of homes. At the same time, local governments work hard to be equitable, attractive, efficient and sustainable.

But what happens when things don't go as planned; when natural or man-made disasters unexpectedly bring chaos, confusion and tragedy?

James C. Schwab, chair-elect of the American Planning Association's Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division, believes communities can and should make hazard mitigation a priority in their local planning process to become more resilient and better prepared for future disasters. As the now-retired senior research associate with the American Planning Association, he has been involved in disaster planning since 1990.

Schwab and others spoke at the recent 11th annual Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa. He and Jennifer Ellison, a planner in the Public Works department in Polk County, Iowa, described various community responses to disastrous flooding and their varying degrees of success. They explained the Hazard Mitigation Act passed by Congress in 2000, which took into account the needs of emergency managers during a disaster, but included very little input from planners. At the time, Schwab believed the mode of operation needed to change to put planners at the table.

"There is only so much emergency managers can do because a lot is embedded in land use and building codes, which is not the stuff emergency managers are good at," he said. Because of that, he went on to prepare a report, with the support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, titled Hazard Mitigation: Integrating Best Practices into Planning (2010).

The report includes six case studies, including the 2008 Iowa floods that affected several large communities along major waterways. Ellison said 85 of 99 Iowa counties contained designated federal disaster areas that year. In Cedar Rapids, 10 square miles were flooded. In the college town of Iowa City, 1,600 acres were inundated. "It was one of Iowa's largest natural disasters, and much of it was considered a 500-year flood. But now they happen more frequently," she said.

In Cedar Rapids, numerous essential services were completely destroyed, in part because they were located on an island in the Cedar River. The city hall, jail, municipal court facilities, central fire, central library, and the police headquarters were all flooded. The city's municipal transportation hub and other local ground transportation facilities were also displaced. Three of four city collector wells and 46 vertical wells were disabled.

Ellison outlined numerous lessons that can be learned from that experience. One is to "think before developing vulnerable floodplain locations and suffering the consequences." It is better to minimize development in vulnerable areas by public acquisition for open space or parkland. She suggested either a public or private buyout of these lands, or at least development of one area while leaving vulnerable spots for parkland.

"Roads can be overtaken by water, so emergency service response to these locations is a problem," she added. As a result, planners should consider elevating roads and bridges, or planning detours.

In a response to the flood of 2008, the Iowa Smart Planning Act was signed into law in 2010, as a way to guide and encourage the development of local comprehensive plans. The bill included 10 Smart Planning Principles to aid in local comprehensive plan development and public decision making. A sampling of these principles includes collaboration of public and private stakeholders; efficiency, transparency, consistency in planning, zoning, development, and resource management; natural resources and agriculture protection; and sustainable design, which results in efficient use of land, energy, water, air and materials.

Schwab said his report included case studies from large, medium and small jurisdictions to prove that disaster planning can be effective even is small communities with limited resources.

He said planners in Lee County, Fla., based in Ft. Myers, set a good example by starting with a clear vision, setting reasonable goals and integrating their hazard mitigation plan into the county's comprehensive plan, which brought together mitigation for the county and five municipalities into a unified plan.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan in North Carolina is a good example of a plan drafted for a major regional commercial hub, Schwab said. He said Charlotte was one of the first communities to quantify and map flood elevations and floodplain boundaries. It was a vanguard community in educating, involving, and helping constituents to reshape settlement patterns to avoid high-risk flood zones. They secured buy-in among stakeholders and elected officials through transparent methods, understandable data, and interactive mapping to illustrate future results.

Other case studies in Schwab's report include mitigation plans from Roseville and Berkeley, Calif.; Bourne, Mass., and Morgan County, Utah. These medium and small jurisdictions each have unique circumstances that can create storm water hazards and topographical issues that exacerbate them. They also have challenges in working together across jurisdictions and factions. But Schwab said those locations with a strong tradition of communicating together are able to plan successfully, and create solutions that do not push problems down the road.

"The idea of working together is key to all of these," Schwab said. "That means finding what does not work and remembering that what you put off today will bite you tomorrow."

To help with that sort of cooperative long-range natural disaster planning, many communities turn to professional environmental services. Doug Ongie, an environmental planner with Impact7G, based in Iowa, defined a resilient community as one that is "able to resist and rapidly recover from disasters or other shocks with minimal outside assistance.” However, many communities are paralyzed after a disaster because their planning has been inadequate. For example, what happens if you lose a major facility overnight, such as a school?

"Something as basic as where people are to go the day after should not be overlooked," Ongie said. "A simple disaster plan could go a long way."

He noted that the Upper Midwest is having more frequent severe storm events and higher levels of precipitation. That has led to more billion-dollar disaster events, meaning higher flood and home insurance rates. Comparing the average observed total precipitation in the Midwest from 1901-1960 to the years 1991-2012 shows there has been a 9 percent increase in precipitation, Ongie said. Over the last 10 years, severe storms including tornadoes, wind, and hail are the most common and most expensive large events.

"Tornadoes, wind and hail cause the most damage because they... cover large areas," Ongie said.

A resilient community and a resilient state can adopt policy or building codes that minimize the dollar amount of these claims, he said. For example, Iowa and Illinois have among the highest costs for flood insurance because claim numbers are up. Interestingly, claims are down on flood insurance in many parts of the country, perhaps because people are proactive and moving out of flood plains or because high premiums are chasing them away, Ongie said.

Ongie described strategies and tactics he recommends to any community, noting that it can be difficult to get all local entities on the same page. First, know that resilience planning can take place at the regional, city or site level. There should be planning for hazard mitigation, a comprehensive plan, a school district plan and an infrastructure plan.

"Go beyond checking the box with hazard mitigation plans and identify areas of high risk," Ongie said.

He encouraged planners to consider changes to zoning and building codes prior to major disasters. As storms increase in frequency and intensity, it might not make sense to rebuild the same structures in the same locations, he said, and these decisions are best made before the chaos of a catastrophic event.

Planning for when, where and how to relocate people is also important from a social equity standpoint, as flood plains are often where the most vulnerable people live. It is essential to identify vulnerable populations and plan for relocation or assistance programs before the disaster strikes, Ongie said.

Sustainable City Network hosted two online courses in 2018 focusing on hazard mitigation and post-disaster recovery planning. Recordings and course materials can be purchased and downloaded in our online store:

Hazard Mitigation Planning Fundamentals - This 4-hour webinar series featuring instructor Kimberly Burton was recorded live in May 2018. It is recommended for anyone responsible for initiatives related to resilience and hazard mitigation planning.

Post-Disaster Recovery Planning Before and After - This 4-hour webinar series featuring instructor James Schwab was recorded live in August 2018. It is recommended for anyone responsible for initiatives related to resilience and disaster recovery planning.

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