CRC researchers go ‘beyond the basics’ of hazard mitigation

A web-based tool being expanded as part of the Coastal Resilience Center (CRC) will enable local planners and emergency managers to improve integration of hazard mitigation to guide land use and urban development in hazardous areas.

Phil-BerkeCRC Principal Investigator Dr. Phil Berke, of Texas A&M University, leads a project called “Local Planning Networks and Neighborhood Vulnerability Indicators.” The project’s goal is to develop a resilience scorecard and user guidelines to assist local planners and emergency managers to integrate disaster risk into every element of urban development, so that all plans work together.

The project team includes engagement coordinators Jaimie Masterson and John Cooper, and graduate students Siyu Yu, Matt Malecha and Jaekyung Li.

Failure to coordinate networks of plans can significantly increase the growing vulnerability to coastal hazards and climate change. The project will produce a Practitioner’s Guide and Scorecard to provide local practitioners a tool to identify when and where their community plans are in conflict, as well as how well they target areas of the community that are most vulnerable. Armed with this new knowledge, planners can engage the whole community regarding ‘missed opportunities’ to strengthen local hazard mitigation planning, leveraging such knowledge to improve the integration, consistency and responsiveness of their networks of plans.

“We find that local plans are not fully consistent and do not always address the areas in a community most vulnerable to floods or sea level risks,” Dr. Berke said. “Some plans actually increase physical and social vulnerability to hazards. For example, prior to the destruction from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a New Jersey city’s hazard mitigation plan called for acquisitions and buy-outs in high-hazard areas, while the comprehensive plan set goals to increase investments in the same location.”

Poor integration among municipal planning groups can lead to “silos,” Berke said, and hazard mitigation specialists fear this lack of integration can significantly compound future risks. Failure to integrate land use and mitigation planning in hazard-sensitive areas has become a national policy concern, he said. As a consequence of these silos, there has been geometric growth in losses from disasters in the past century.

This lack of integration has been recognized by federal officials. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has called for more integration of hazard mitigation efforts into all types of local planning and more cooperation between emergency managers and planners.

Building on previous work

Berke and Team copy
Dr. Berke meets with students.

The project adds new elements to a previous project by Berke, which yielded the “Beyond the Basics” website. The site is designed to help local governments prepare a new, or update an existing, hazard mitigation plan. It’s based largely on FEMA’s Local Mitigation Planning Handbook, but adds examples of best practices from selected local hazard mitigation plans found in the United States. In many cases, these plans go beyond the minimum requirements for FEMA approval and include best practices in planning for climate adaption and reduction of social vulnerability that are not covered in FEMA guidelines.

As part of the “Local Planning Networks” project, researchers will identify how mitigation can be supported thorough different types of local planning activities (economic development, land use, housing, capital improvement programs, environment) that influence land use and development patterns in hazard-sensitive areas. They will measure the layout of a community’s social and physical vulnerability, and identify conflicts between local plans and opportunities to improve coordination in different areas or populations.

Then, they will apply the indicators to six coastal communities to test how well the network of local plans support mitigation, and how well they account for vulnerability to coastal floods and projected sea-level rise. The communities to be selected will represent different regions along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and different populations sizes to account for various levels of community capacity to use the scorecard.

Growing usage

BTB website snapshot
The Beyond the Basics website will be expanded with information from Dr. Berke’s current project, “Local Planning Networks and Neighborhood Vulnerability Indicators.”

New results will be integrated into the “Beyond the Basics” website, which is intended as a one-stop location for officials to develop better-integrated plans. End users for this project include the American Planning Association and FEMA. Website users come primarily from the United States, but also from India, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

“Beyond the Basics” has recorded more than 13,000 hits over the last 12 months, with noted escalation in usage in the last six months. Within the United States, California, Texas and New York, all high-population coastal states, are the source of most visitors.

“The usage of the website has exceeded our expectations,” Dr. Berke said. “We are particularly pleased that the site has experienced steady growth throughout multiple coastal states. We can only speculate that the growth in interest in the website is due to a variety of factors, such as the ever-increasing need by communities to take on their growing vulnerability.

“We would like to see mitigation practices – development regulations, incentives and public spending – that are woven into all sectors of urban development management, rather than stand-alone and isolated efforts. This requires more effective inter-agency coordination, higher levels of public engagement and more efficient use of limited local resources that support mitigation.”