Smith, G., Lyles, W., & Berke, P. (2013). The Role of the State in Building Local Capacity and Commitment for Hazard Mitigation Planning. International Journal Of Mass Emergencies & Disasters31(2), 178-203.

Introduction

One of the most important things a local community can do to protect itself from damages caused by natural disasters is to prepare and implement a high quality and fully comprehensive hazard mitigation plan (HMP.) Furthermore, having a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved HMP available, and at-the-ready immediately following a natural disaster, will greatly expedite FEMA funds for local governments. This is a critical and much-needed resource for communities when they are facing after effects of natural disasters.

However, many local governments lack the resources and know-how necessary for putting together a quality HMP. Recognizing this need, along with the need to increase efficiency within FEMA, Congress passed the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 (DMA) which provided a framework to help federal, state, and local governments work together in pre- and post-disaster planning. The goal was to encourage and enable local governments to take responsibility for their own hazard mitigation planning, and expedite the disbursement of FEMA funds when warranted.

In The Role of the State in Building Local Capacity and Commitment for Hazard Mitigation Planning, authors Smith, Lyles, & Berke, research the impact the DMA has had at the state level to answer the question: “What activities have states undertaken to assist local governments to build the capacity needed to develop hazard mitigation plans and policies in light of the requirements of the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000?” (Smith et al., 2013:179) First, the authors provide a high-level review of the DMA. Next, they share the research methods used to evaluate how well states are helping local governments with pre-disaster planning. Then, after comparing and analyzing the results, the authors present the general findings from their research. And finally, the authors offer their conclusions and make recommendations on how federal, state, and local governments can improve hazard mitigation planning.

 The Disaster Mitigation Act

            According to the authors, at the time Congress passed the Disaster Mitigation Act, FEMA was under review for failure to efficiently disburse funds to several federally-declared disasters. The new law sought to correct issues within the FEMA organization and provide direction & funding to enable states and local governments to take a more proactive role in helping their local governments be “disaster ready.”

To this end, the DMA had three core functions. First, the DMA placed a heavy focus on pre-disaster planning: it required states and local governments to develop FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plans in order to be eligible for federal hazard mitigation funds. Next, the DMA provided for predisaster hazard mitigation grants to help states and local governments create and implement effective hazard mitigation plans (HMP). This resulted in the creation of the Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant program (PDM) which provided grants to help offset the cost of developing these pre-disaster mitigation plans. Lastly, the DMA helped states assist local governments with the development and implementation of FEMA-approved pre-disaster HMPs through the establishment and funding for State Hazard Mitigation Officers (SHMOs). These officers are “responsible for the oversight and administration of state hazard mitigation planning and grants management activities as well as providing technical assistance to local governments.” (Smith et al., 2013:198)

Research Methods

The authors executed a systematic review of two Pacific coast states (California & Washington), two Gulf Coast states (Texas & Georgia), and two Atlantic coast states (Florida & North Carolina). These states all have coastal communities who were managing “…high growth pressures and high vulnerability to natural hazards (Smith et al., 2013:182). Data was collected via mail surveys, telephone interviews with SHMOs, the review of archived documents, and information from previous analysis of mitigation plan quality. Specifically, the authors wanted to review how states managed staffing SHMOs, funded mitigation programs, shared costs of developing mitigation plans, delivered technical assistance in hazard mitigation planning, and if states encouraged land use planning in the development of hazard mitigation plans. The findings from these issues would answer the original question regarding what steps states have taken to help local governments meet the requirements of the DMA.

 Results and General Findings

Results from the research efforts included data from the mail survey, anecdotal information from the SMHO interviews, and information found in the review of older mitigation plans and state and local policies and programs addressing hazard mitigation planning. In order to provide an accurate and comprehensive cross-state analysis of the research data, information was classified into one of the following six specific areas:

  1. State Hazard Mitigation Planning

            Staffing for mitigation planning offices appeared tenuous. Aside from the federally funded SHMO positions, the majority of hazard mitigation positions are paid for with time-limited post-disaster FEMA funds. This leads to a high turnover rate in hazard mitigation positions. “Fluctuation in size and experience levels of state hazard mitigation staffs was cited by SHMOs as a major problem.” (Smith et al.; 2013:184). The inability to fully hire, train, and maintain hazard mitigation staff impacts the effectiveness and longevity of hazard mitigation departments. The authors noted that the study only included actual state mitigation officials and did not include staff that works with other state agencies, so the “staffing levels [reported in this study] probably underestimated overall capacity.” (Smith et al.; 2013:184)

  1. State Hazard Mitigation Funding, Policies, and Programs

Hazard mitigation funding, policies, and programs meant to strengthen the ability of local governments to manages hazard mitigation issues varied greatly among the six states reviewed. California and Florida focused on regulatory actions. California passed a law to provide local governments additional state funds following a presidentially-approved natural disaster if the local government had included hazard mitigation plans into local planning and development. Florida focused on building strong relationships with the insurance industry, water management districts, and homebuilders associations, as well as others, to help foster state regulatory programs to address hazard mitigation. One such program, the Residential Construction Mitigation Program, aims to educate and assist homeowners with wind hazard retrofit projects so as to help their homes survive a hurricane.

North Carolina, on the other hand, provides incentives to help local governments manage hazard mitigation planning. These incentives include grants to help with pre-disaster planning, relocation funds to help move low-income families out of disaster-prone areas, and a state floodplain mapping program to keep flood insurance rate maps up to date allowing home owners the ability to purchase adequate coverage. Furthermore, North Carolina created their own state-level natural disaster fund to help communities deal with smaller natural disasters and requires communities to adopt and maintain local hazard mitigation plans in order to be eligible to receive state funds under this plan. The authors note that North Carolina’s approach seems to have been a success as the local governments are quite capable of creating and implementing high-quality pre-disaster mitigation plans.

  1. State Cost-Sharing of Federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs

Data regarding state cost-sharing of federal hazard mitigation grants provides another way to assess the effectiveness of states in helping local communities access pre- and post-disaster hazard mitigation grants. However, an interesting contradiction was found in reviewing the data from the six states surveyed: as states took on a willingness to provide some or all of the of the non-federal match requirements, local communities and individuals were less incentivized to adopt locally and privately funded pre-hazard mitigation measures. Additionally, how the non-federal match requirement was met differed in every state. Local governments in California cover the non-federal match requirement without any state-level support or matching funds, whereas North Carolina covers 100% of the non-federal match for the hazard mitigation grant program, but no other mitigation programs. And in most states, there are no provisions to help homeowners cover the non-federal share of housing related projects.

  1. State Delivery of Hazard Mitigation Planning Technical Assistance

Aside from funding hazard mitigation planning, all six states provided technical assistance hazard mitigation planning through various outreach methods. All six states held workshops and conferences for training and education, provided local governments with data to use for pre-disaster planning, trained local governments in the planning process, and offered pre-review of local plans before submitting those plans to FEMA for approval. Other technical assistance and guidance provisions noted were: creation and distribution of training manuals and guidebooks, publication of case studies with best practices, hazard analysis training for local planners, direct help with the planning process, and connecting local governments to regional consultants or agencies.

  1. State Encouragement of Local Awareness and Commitment to Hazard Mitigation

When conducting interviews with the SMHOs, it became apparent that, across the board, increasing awareness with local officials remains one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of hazard mitigation planning. Additionally, SMHOs noted that some local governments were not apt to identify hazard mitigation projects and/or implement hazard mitigation plans out of concern that in doing so cities will then be held liable when disaster strikes.

Overall SMHOs stated that the most successful thing a state could do, in order to help local governments, see the value in pre-disaster hazard mitigation planning, was the availability of a subject matter expert who could provide long-term assistance to the local communities. In providing a primary contact for the local community to turn to during all phases of the pre- and post-disaster mitigation planning, implementation, and recovery efforts following a natural disaster, provided the best outcome. However, the SMHOs admitted that the time-intensive nature of such a position negates the ability for the federal government to provide that service to local governments.

  1. State Encouragement of Local Land Use Planning

Surprisingly enough, FEMA does not require land use planning in the creation of hazard mitigation plans, and therefore most local governments do not incorporate land use planning into their mitigation plans. One SMHO suggested that the involvement of land use planners with hazard mitigation plans was low because local emergency managers were usually in charge of developing the hazard mitigation plans, and without the requirement for incorporating land use planners, emergency managers simply were unaware of the benefits of coordinating with land use planners.

Conclusions

After reviewing all the findings, and comparing it to the last state-level study on hazard mitigation planning (1999), the authors note that some progress has indeed been made with regards to the state governments helping the local governments develop and implement high-quality hazard mitigation plans. However, there is still a way to go. Major problems noted are:

  • Too many variations across the states.
  • Focus on access to federal funds vs. focus on the development of local hazard mitigation plans.
  • Lack of incorporation of land use planning techniques into hazard mitigation plans, which is not required to meet minimum standards of the DMA.
  • Understaffed state hazard mitigation offices which limit the effectiveness of the staff.
  • The resistance of local governments to develop and implement hazard mitigation plans due to issues related to property rights, development pressure, and liability concerns.

Recommendations

The authors recommend three major steps be taken to help states do more to help local governments create and implement local hazard mitigation plans.

  1. Reduce differences between the states to build consistency at the federal and state level.
  2. Provide additional staffing to allow longevity at the state agency level, and better integrate cross-agency resources (emergency services, land use planners, city governments) to provide a more comprehensive and effective hazard mitigation plan.
  3. Put more focus on land use planning as a primary tool during all phases of the development and implementation of local – and state-level hazard mitigation plans.
  4. Encourage changes in the DMA to put a greater emphasis pushing states to help local governments take bigger steps towards accepting full responsibility for hazard mitigation planning.

The original intent of the DMA was to help states help local governments actually create and implement hazard mitigation plans. As you can see from the review of the study performed by the authors, states are not readily achieving these goals. Although progress has been made, the authors suggest even greater progress could be achieved if the local governments leverage land use planning as a tool to help build high-quality hazard mitigation plans, states bolster staffing to help SMHOs deliver resources to the local governments, and the federal government help smooth out all the differences between the states to bring about a universal standard for pre- and post-disaster mitigation planning.

Final Review Notes

This article brings up many good points that have not been covered elsewhere. The lack of any real longevity of employees in the state hazard mitigation office and the lack of involvement with land use planners in hazard mitigation planning stuck out as issues worth addressing from federal or state level legislation. The variation of functionality across the states seems reasonable as every state is so different in the types of natural disasters they face. Of most interest, however, was the statement made regarding the lack of interest in identifying or planning to hazard mitigation due to the perception that doing so would increase liability.