Disaster can strike in many forms. It might blow in as a Class 5 tornado, churning schools, business and homes into rubble as it tears through neighborhoods. It could arrive as a flash flood, leaving residents clinging to rooftops while the rising waters wash away roads and bridges.
In recent years, a growing number of natural disasters have hit counties across the United States, leaving significant economic challenges in their wake. According to data collected since 1953 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the number of federal disaster declarations per year peaked in 2011, at 242.
Additional data suggests just how many counties are being affected. “The research that NACo (National Association of Counties) is beginning to compile suggests that over 25 percent of our nation’s counties have experienced presidentially declared disasters in the last 20 years,” wrote Linda Langston, county supervisor of Linn County, Iowa, in the association’s 2013 annual conference issue of CountyNews.
Langston co-presented the session, “Essential Steps for Building Community Resilience” during the NACo 2013 County Solutions and Marketplace conference in July, and spoke from experience. Her county bore the brunt of damage and economic losses caused during severe flooding that occurred across the Midwestern United States in 2008. Fourteen public buildings in the county were damaged, including the county jail. The county’s businesses experienced a 40 percent drop in revenue and took on an additional $120 million in debt because of the floods, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
County governments should ask themselves not if a disaster could strike their community, but when, and prepare to be resilient in the face of such calamities, she said. Langston defined resilience as “the capacity of a community to maintain its core purpose in the face of drastically changed circumstances.”
In the presentation, she and two other speakers — Cathy Muse, director of purchasing and supply management in Fairfax County, Virginia, and John J. Brown, director of the Office of Emergency Management in Arlington County, Virginia — offered a number of steps that counties can take to help build community resilience before disaster strikes.
Essential Steps to Building Resilience
Put emergency policies and procedures in place for purchasing.
“If you get those purchasing policies in place and get those purchasing agreements on your shelf, ready to go, they are very easy to trigger and you’re much more likely to be reimbursed for them (by FEMA),” Langston said.
The policies should not be overly bureaucratic. “You don’t want it to be a stumbling block to get what you need where you need it,” Muse said. As an example, if a county has a procurement card program, the county should work with the county’s bank so that it has the ability to immediately increase the limit on the cards — say from a $2,500 limit to a $10,000 limit. “Work with the bank so that a single phone call can make that happen,” Muse said.
Establish policies allowing emergency commissioners court meetings and decision-making.
“We held meetings three times a day,” Langston said. “You have to have something in place so that you can hold meetings and suspend the 24-hour meeting notice.” She said officials notified the local news media each time to let them know when they were holding emergency meetings.
Establish policies to manage employee overtime.
Langston said if counties have the policies in place ahead of time to ensure that certain employees will be paid overtime in the case of an emergency, FEMA will reimburse the county for that overtime. “You have to have the solution on your books (ahead of the disaster),” she said.
Anticipate the need for media relations assistance.
Linn County, Iowa, had a part-time media relations staffer before the flood, but the county needed help 24/7 to deal with media inquiries during and after the disaster. “We had to hire outside help because there was no way to manage it,” Langston said.
Involve the private sector, nonprofits and other governmental agencies in preparation and planning.
By working together, counties can pool resources with other local organizations and businesses to share information that will create a more comprehensive disaster response plan. That will help ensure a better economic recovery in your community, Muse said. She and Brown recommended sharing education and training opportunities with community partners, and inviting representatives from across the community to participate in regular emergency drills and table-top exercises used to prepare for disaster response.
Brown said his county has engaged its local building community and other businesses and organizations, such as pharmacies, big box stores and public transportation agencies. “We want to leverage all the people who can get us resources,” he said. “For-profits — large corporations — are willing to chip in when the chips are down. And the nonprofits can establish distribution hubs (for supplies such as food and water).”
His county staged a “Local Supply Chain Capacity in a Crisis Summit Exercise” over two days earlier this year. It involved local businesses and nonprofits and helped identify how the local supply chain capacity could be strengthened. “Bring in retailers and establish those relationships early on,” Brown said.
Establish trust with your community partners.
Community partners need to trust in the county and the emergency response processes it has established and vice versa. “If you don’t know and trust them, you will be reluctant to share sensitive information and trust that they will use it in a productive way for their community,” Muse said.
Identify key suppliers and maintain 24/7 access to them.
If area businesses have pledged to provide supplies in a disaster, get the cell phone numbers of their key contacts and save them in officials’ cell phones for when the numbers are needed. “You need the ability to reach their president or CEO if you need them to intervene and mobilize their workforce,” Muse said.
Utilize National Cooperative Contracts through U.S. Communities.
The website of the government purchasing cooperative, www.uscommunities.org/solutions/emergency-preparedness, provides information about suppliers who are already knowledgeable about emergency response.
Communicate with county residents, businesses and other organizations.
Communicate with the community at every opportunity about preparedness and self-reliance, Brown said. This helps encourage residents to develop habits of alertness and encourages community partnering to prepare for disasters so when a disaster happens, the stakeholders are already engaged and listening.
Establish a recovery resource access website to provide the community with details about how to get food, water, etc. But be cognizant of the county’s demographics and how residents consume information, he added. Go door to door, if needed, to reach lower income neighbors who may not be tapped into the primary communications channels the county is using.
Take an all-county team approach.
Should disaster strike, it should be all hands on deck. “Every (county) employee has a role in emergency management,” Brown said, “even if it’s just answering the phones.”
Learn from resilience-building resources and example programs.
FEMA offers response and recovery information and resources on its website, www.fema.gov/response-recovery.
The Infrastructure Security Partnership, www.tisp.org, is a nonprofit formed from the public and private sectors after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and offers a number of publications online, including Regional Disaster Resilience: A Guide for Developing an Action Plan (also at www.naco.org/htrdr).
The book Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative was co-authored by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. See nas-sites.org/resilience/disaster-resilience-report/.
Arlington County, Virginia, received a FEMA 2012 Community Resilience Innovation Challenge Grant for its planning model for emergency managers to connect local private and nonprofit providers with local distributors to improve the ability to deliver goods and services in a disaster. See details about the award and the county’s model at www.resiliencechallenge.org/2012/arlington.html.
Lincoln County, Oregon, created a disaster resilience kit for businesses through a grant from the Economic Development Administration. See www.naco.org/HTLINCOLN.
The Los Angeles County Community Disaster Resilience project is a collaborative effort sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute of Mental Health that aims to engage community-based organizations in providing leadership and partnership to promote community resilience in the face of public health emergencies such as pandemics and disasters. See www.laresilience.org.
NACo provides its members information, training and assistance on community and economic resilience at www.naco.org. ✯