Strategic Disaster Planning: Tips to Give Your Community a Head Start

Featured as the Cover Article in ICMA’s April 2017 PM Magazine!

Those who work with communities in the aftermath of natural disasters see the importance of advance planning firsthand. Disaster plans save time, money, headaches and, ultimately, they can save lives. In short, planning makes disasters less disastrous.

And yet, it can be difficult for communities to prioritize disaster planning, particularly for those with limited time, budget, or staff. These communities can also be hit the hardest when a disaster does strike.

One of the biggest challenges we see during disaster response and recovery is that these communities all have people with a regular day job, and then they have disaster work piled on top of it,” says Blake Ratcliff, director of economic development and disaster recovery, Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS).

If it seems daunting to get your community’s disaster plan up to speed, take heart. Natural disasters are always unpredictable, but the issues that communities face during a disaster are often surprisingly similar.

Build Relationships Now

For managers, how well do your state and local officials know you? You’ll create a stronger, more authentic bond if you establish a relationship now, not when you’re asking for assistance under duress. Put aside political differences. If someone is not familiar with your community, share some of what makes it special and extend an invitation to visit.

“You need to know your representatives in advance,” says Amanda Moody, director of economic development for the city of Central, Louisiana, which is recovering from a devastating 2016 flood. “Don’t wait for the disaster to happen. They need to know who you are and identify with your community.”

In August 2016, Central was still recovering from damage caused by flash flooding earlier in the year, when more than 7 trillion gallons of rain fell in a 48-hour period, swallowing the city in more than four feet of water and in some places, up to six feet.

Initial forecasts underestimated the amount of rain the area would receive. Central, which has ample experience with hurricanes and was well-prepared for typical disaster scenarios, had no way of anticipating the amount of damage the rains would cause. Of its 27,000 residents, 25,000 were impacted by the flood, which resulted in more than $10 billion in losses.

Relationships with government agencies in other localities are also critical. Talk with other cities and counties about disaster planning, and establish mutual aid agreements that specify how you will help each other in a disaster event.

“Have a memorandum of understanding in place for working with other local governments and agencies,” suggests Charlie Cox, emergency management coordinator, Orange County, Texas. Sister city partnerships can also define how two cities will help each other during a natural disaster. “Our sister city can help take in our residents if they’re displaced in a disaster,” he explains.

In March 2016, excessive rain caused the Sabine River north of Orange County to reach record-high levels, compromising the integrity of the Toledo Bend Dam and forcing dam operators to release water and flood the county. At its peak, the amount of water flowing over the dam per minute was equivalent to the water flow of Niagara Falls.

The county had previous experience with flooding after Hurricanes Rita and Ike. Their existing disaster plans, however, only accounted for flooding from the Gulf. Although they had two weeks to prepare, county officials had to rapidly develop a plan for a disaster scenario with water coming from the opposite direction, with no historical data or existing flood models.

Looking for more relationship advice? Include your community’s volunteer and faith-based organizations in disaster planning. A natural disaster will strain your community’s resources, and volunteers will either help alleviate this strain or unintentionally make it worse.

Talking with these groups regularly beforehand will not only help you understand what they can offer during a disaster, it also can help them understand roles and boundaries intended to ensure safety and avoid duplicated or unnecessary efforts (see copy below, Avoid Chaos with Effective Volunteer Management).

Likewise, establish relationships with enthusiasts or resident groups that may have special equipment or skills that can help in a disaster. Amateur HAM radio enthusiasts are invaluable assets when landlines and mobile phones are down.

Ask Central’s residents about the “Cajun Navy”—a group of resident boat owners who navigated flood waters to rescue those stranded in their homes—and you’re likely to get tears of gratitude and one heroic story after another.

Communication Considerations

At no time in your community will communications be as critical—or as problematic—as during a disaster. Making improvements and plans now that address the communications challenges your community is likely to face in a natural disaster will save you time and headaches. It may also save lives.

Start by looking inward, at internal agencies and departments. Most localities struggle with staff communications during a disaster. In areas where disasters are rare, few or no staff members will have real-world natural disaster experience. Even localities that experience disasters every few years can quickly lose institutional knowledge due to staff turnover and administration changes.

In Orange County, officials were experienced with hurricanes coming from the south but had no idea how unprecedented flooding from the north would impact the county. Once flood waters hit, half of the county was flooded, while the other half was unaffected, causing confusion among agencies and staff.”

We lost time trying to train people and get them in the right place,” says Orange County Commissioner Barry Burton. “You have to bring in people from different departments to staff the emergency operations center, and you can have miscommunications,” he says. “Make sure everyone understands what their role is going to be.

“It’s a good idea to develop a laminated document that lists contact information for all external resources. Provide copies to critical internal personnel, like the mayor, police chief, and fire chief for their home, office, and vehicle.

Use social media like Facebook, Twitter, and other social tools to send out short, immediate messages. Consider such alternative forms of communication as amateur radios and community bulletin boards for communicating when traditional lines of communication are down. And have community leaders use multiple, different cellphone carriers to improve your chances of mobile communications during a disaster.

Communities may also do little planning for how to communicate and coordinate with volunteers. Without a plan for communicating with volunteers, you will lose a potentially valuable resource for your community—at best. At worst, untrained, spontaneous volunteers can hinder rescue efforts and put themselves or others in danger.You can plan for the most important components of volunteer communications well before a disaster occurs; for example, identifying potential locations for a volunteer reception center (see copy below, Avoid Chaos with Effective Volunteer Management).

Following the disaster, you will need to communicate with the public about community recovery and disaster-funding opportunities. Be prepared for residents who are distraught; their homes may have been damaged or lost, some may have lost loved ones.

Organize town hall meetings with internal and external stakeholders once it is safe to do so. Communications should be empathetic but also clear and never misleading.

Make sure there is alignment between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and your locality on program eligibility and requirements before communicating any disaster assistance funding information to the public.

Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

Providing proper documentation is crucial to ensuring that your community will receive and keep funding assistance following a disaster. Yet, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the detailed documentation requirements for FEMA, HUD, and other funding programs.

It’s always a good idea to enroll in a FEMA or HUD Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) training course prior to a disaster; both offer a wide range of in-person and Web-based training courses.

Localities that don’t meet documentation requirements may have their claims denied, funding halted, or even be required to return assistance funding they have already spent. “We learned that the hard way with Hurricanes Rita and Ike,” says Orange County’s Burton. “We were denied claims because we didn’t save receipts. If you don’t have the documentation, you won’t get the funding.”

During disaster planning, develop checklists of documentation requirements from funding sources. Make sure you and your staff know what documentation FEMA requires. Remember you won’t request funds until after the disaster, so keep documentation requirements in mind during the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Also provide those in the field with documentation checklists that they can take with them. And make available checklists of documentation needed for CDBG-DR or other grants to homeowners.”

Learn how to document everything,” says Central’s Mayor Jr. Shelton. “It’s the most important thing.”

This can be extremely difficult in the confusion and disorganization that follows a natural disaster. “When disasters happen, it’s controlled chaos and you have to document what is going on,” says Burton. “For us, FEMA needed to see a picture of the water when it was at its highest level. We couldn’t show a picture and say, “Well, this is where the water was.”

Take photographs and document damage as soon as it is safe to do so.

Keep specific, detailed records of hours worked and work performed. These demonstrate your community’s investment in recovery, which can help determine recovery cost-sharing ratios required by FEMA.

Likewise, make and keep copies of all documentation. “Have redundant systems in place. Think of the old saying “Two is one and one is none,” says Central Councilman Shane Evans. “Have all information in hard copy and digital format.”

Use cloud storage to ensure document safety. Instruct staff to scan and upload documents immediately. Organize documents by type of reimbursement and set up a file-naming protocol.

Once your community receives disaster assistance funding, you will need to keep and manage records on all projects and expenditures so that you can demonstrate proper use of funds. Be prepared for audits by ensuring that all documentation is well-organized and easily accessible. Retain files for at least five years after the grant closeout date.”

Don’t underestimate the burden that documentation requirements can put on your staff, especially for smaller communities,” says Steve Traina, deputy director of economic development and disaster recovery, IBTS, who has worked with communities recovering from disasters, including both Central and Orange County. “Be realistic about how you’re going to handle the increased workload.”

Consider if a third party can help you manage documentation and submittal requirements. The FEMA state applicant liaison (SAL) and public assistance coordinators can assist with documentation compliance.

Planning for a natural disaster should be an ongoing process for your community. Don’t plan for a perfect plan. Instead, strive to make your plan better than the one you had last quarter, last month, or last year. Look for how you can incorporate other communities’ experiences with response and recovery into your planning efforts.


In disaster recovery, the relationship and interaction between FEMA and the 50 states is critically important and based on state sovereignty concepts defined when the U.S. Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. Federal disaster assistance is intended to supplement—not replace—state, local, and private-sector resources. In almost all cases, states must formally request federal assistance after determining that the disaster response exceeds local capabilities.

Established in 1988, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act creates the formal system that allows FEMA to provide disaster assistance to states after presidential disaster declarations or emergency declarations.

Under the act, FEMA administers and coordinates funding and disaster response activities after a presidential disaster declaration. The act encourages states and localities to:

  • Develop comprehensive disaster preparedness plans.
  • Achieve better intergovernmental coordination in a disaster.
  • Protect themselves by obtaining insurance coverage.
  • Encourage hazard mitigation measures.
  • Provide federal assistance programs for both public and private losses.

These requirements can be challenging for localities to understand and implement consistently. A range of tools to help localities conform with Stafford Act requirements before, during, and after a natural disaster will be provided at, which will launch summer 2017 (see below, IBTS Online Resource information).


The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) allows homeowners in participating communities to purchase flood insurance at affordable rates that are a fraction of the cost it takes to repair uninsured homes damaged by a flood.

Obtaining flood insurance can have enormous benefit for a community even if flood insurance is not required. In Central, more than 2,000 homes damaged by floods did not have—and were not required to have—flood insurance.

To participate in the NFIP, communities must develop and enforce building and zoning ordinances that mitigate future flood damage. Here are the three components of NFIP:

  1. Providing flood insurance.
  2. Improving floodplain management.
  3. Developing flood zone hazard maps.

Communities that exceed NFIP’s minimum requirements are eligible to enroll in the program’s community rating system (CRS), which offers insurance discounts that increase as communities improve their rating. CRS awards points for activities like having elevation certificates, preserving open space, and making flood protection information publicly available.


IBTS is in the process of developing the IBTS Online Help and Advice for Natural Disasters website (IBTSOn, a free, online resource to help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. This resource, which will be launched during summer 2017, will provide several tools, including a debris management wizard and a FEMA reimbursement wizard. It will leverage IBTS’s experiences gained from helping communities manage the natural disaster process.


During a disaster, volunteers will show up. Whether they are an asset or a burden to your community largely depends on whether you have a system in place for managing them.

At the heart of volunteer coordination is the volunteer reception center (VRC), a designated location for volunteer management where both credentialed and spontaneous or self-dispatching volunteers will report to for credentialing and to be given their assignments. The center’s director and managers should be trained during disaster preparation.

It’s important to establish a relationship with volunteer organizations throughout preparation and planning so that you have a pool of already credentialed, trained volunteers ready to deploy when safe to do so. Partner with your local community emergency response team to hold regular volunteer training sessions.

Even with advance credentialing, it’s essential to establish a process for quickly credentialing untrained, spontaneous volunteers. All volunteer credentialing should take place at the VRC.

To ensure security, develop a simple volunteer application in advance that includes a job description and a disclaimer that applicants will be subject to a background check. Have local law enforcement on hand to perform background checks on volunteers.

Issue all volunteers a photo ID with their name, assignment, and dates they expect to volunteer, and also instruct them to keep their ID with them. Provide volunteers with orientation and basic safety training at the VRC by public safety personnel.

Assign a VRC staff member to a data-entry role to ensure volunteer efforts are accurately tracked. You will need to submit these to FEMA for reimbursement.

Prepare detailed messages that specify when it is safe for volunteers to help, what donations are needed, and when volunteers should not help. A message like this, for example, is useful: “Volunteers with chainsaws are needed for debris removal on Thursday.”