Disaster Resilience

Natural disasters disrupt communities. They destroy property, force people out of their homes, close businesses, suspend normal routines, and sometimes take lives. Often, natural disasters rearrange the landscape by tossing buildings, upending roads, toppling trees, reshaping rivers, scattering debris, and rendering a community unrecognizable to its residents. Under these unsettling conditions, communities feel isolated and helpless, and there is tremendous pressure from residents, property owners, and businesses to put things in order, to rebuild the community back the way it was before—assuming that is even possible.

Natural disasters also create opportunities for action. State, and in some cases federal, agencies will converge on the stricken community to assist with the rebuilding effort. Outside money may be available to undertake projects that were previously considered infeasible financially, such as elevating a damage-prone road, relocating a police station, or flood-proofing a sewage treatment plant. Damaged or destroyed buildings, roads, and utilities can be rebuilt in safer locations or built to be more damage-resistant. And perhaps most importantly, the community will be focused, at least temporarily, on its own vulnerability and the need to take decisive action.

Timing is critical. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, a community will be faced with key decisions that will have long-term consequences on its vulnerability to future disasters, with no time for extensive research or prolonged deliberations. This is why it is so important to have a hazard mitigation plan in place to guide the recovery effort. The plan can provide the framework to make informed decisions in an environment of chaos, uncertainty, and expediency. It can help keep decision makers focused on the ultimate goal of creating a more sustainable, resilient community. And it can help establish priorities for action to bolster disaster resilience.

Disaster ResilienceDisaster Resilience: Community

Some communities have learned to roll with Nature’s punches by placing buildings and key infrastructure out of harm’s way. That is, they are resilient. For example, after severe flooding in the spring of 1997, the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks across the river in Minnesota, decided to reduce flood risks by acquiring flood prone properties, building a levee to protect properties that could not be moved, and establishing a minimum setback distance from the Red River. The combined effort of the two cities resulted in the acquisition of over 1,000 homes and the creation of a 2,200-acre greenway along the river. Plans call for the development of parks, open space, athletic fields, cultural and educational areas, and the restoration of flood plain habitat.

Some communities have learned to roll with Nature’s punches by placing buildings and key infrastructure out of harm’s way. That is, they are resilient. For example, after severe flooding in the spring of 1997, the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks across the river in Minnesota, decided to reduce flood risks by acquiring flood prone properties, building a levee to protect properties that could not be moved, and establishing a minimum setback

Disaster resilience in communities bend but don’t break when disaster strikes. One way for a community to become more resilient is to mitigate the impacts of natural hazards. Hazard mitigation—a technical term for reducing risks to people and property from natural hazards—includes both structural measures, such as flood control levees and landslide barriers, as well as nonstructural measures, such as land use regulations that restrict construction in earthquake fault zones or in floodplains.

Mitigation includes not only avoiding additional development in vulnerable areas of a community, but making existing development in hazard-prone areas safer. In  general, hazard mitigation involves the following three principles or actions:

  • Making new buildings and infrastructure located in hazard-prone areas more damage resistant and resilient through the use of building codes, design standards, and construction practices and, to safeguard existing development, through protective devices such as dams, levees and seawalls (structural mitigation), if relocation is infeasible.
  • Avoiding development in hazard-prone areas by steering new development to less risky areas—that is, to keep buildings out of harm’s way in the first place—and by relocating damaged buildings to safer areas after a disaster.
  • Protecting natural areas like wetlands, floodplains, forested areas, sand dunes, and other ecological elements that can absorb and reduce the impacts of hazards.

Incorporating Disaster Resilience

Hazard mitigation and disaster resilience go hand-in-hand. A community that follows these three mitigation approaches and also makes use of hazard and other types of insurance that are available will be more resilient the next time disaster strikes. It will bounce back faster.

Recovery Strategies to Build Disaster Resilience within a Community

Building a disaster resilience within a community can start during disaster recovery. A community can start with the situations that exist after a disaster, pick and choose among the options for making itself more disaster resilient and among the implementation tools available to help pursue each of those options. Combining these, the community can develop strategies that are specially tailored to its own needs. The Matrix of Opportunities in Chapter 1 shows some of the options a recovering community could use to enhance its disaster resilience while it tends to disaster-caused predicaments. The situations and options shown on the matrix, and the tools listed below, are not exhaustive; rather, they are meant to give an idea of the range of possibilities. Likewise, the sample strategies below suggest ways in which some options and disaster-induced situations could be combined to help a community become more resistant to natural disasters. Notice how each of the strategies suggested below uses one or more of the options listed on the Matrix of Opportunities under the fifth sustainability principle, “Incorporate Disaster Resilience/Mitigation.”

Situation: Damage to Transportation Facilities

Roads often lie directly in the path of natural hazards, and as a result, damage is common. For example, roads get washed out by hurricanes, inundated by floods, buried by landslides and torn apart by earthquakes. Repairs are expensive.

Recovery Strategies to Build Disaster Resilience:

  • Rebuild to improve resistance to damage. Older transportation facilities can be upgraded to more modern standards that make them more resistant to damage from floods,
    earthquakes, and other risks.
  • Relocate, where feasible. In some cases, transportation facilities could be relocated or rerouted around hazard-prone areas.
  • Reduce adverse impacts caused by such facilities. For example, certain roads and highways in eastern North Carolina acted as dams during Hurricane Floyd, obstructing
    the flow of flood waters and causing extensive flooding of nearby areas.
  • Examine the impact of such facilities on encouraging development in hazard-prone locations. Widening roads may only stimulate additional development in risky areas.

Situation: Damage to Public Facilities

Public facilities such as schools and community centers often serve as emergency shelters after disaster strikes. Unfortunately, these facilities themselves may suffer damage from natural disasters.

Recovery Strategies to Build Disaster Resilience:

  • Protect against future damage by making such facilities more resistant to damage. For example, elevate buildings above the flood height or build a berm to help keep out flood waters.
  • Relocate to a less vulnerable area.
  • Avoid building new public facilities in hazard-prone areas.

Options for Improving Disaster Resilience

  • Make buildings & infrastructure damage-resistant.
  • Avoid development in hazardous areas.
  • Manage storm water.
  • Protect natural areas.
  • Promote & obtain hazard and other insurance.

Regulatory Tools

Local governments have developed a variety of regulatory techniques such as zoning, impact fees, and subdivision exactions, to protect natural areas, including areas vulnerable to natural hazards. For example, some communities use their subdivision regulations to protect open space. Typically, such regulations require developers to set aside steep slopes, wetlands, floodplains, or other sensitive lands. Sometimes developers will be granted higher densities in return for the set asides. Some of the more common regulatory measures used by local governments are summarized below.


Zoning is the most common form of land use control available to local governments to aid disaster resilience. It divides land into separate land use districts or zones and establishes the uses (e.g., residential, commercial, open space, or industrial) as well as the density of development allowed in each zone. The simplest and probably the most common approach to limiting the number of people and buildings in hazard-prone areas is to reduce the allowable density, or downzone an area, either by increasing the minimum lot size or reducing the number of allowable dwelling units permitted per acre.

In areas where stringent restrictions are politically infeasible, zoning preserves some economically viable use of land and therefore generally avoids an unconstitutional taking of land. The weakness of using zoning to reduce a community’s vulnerability to natural disasters is that it only affects new development, rather than existing buildings. Also, zoning’s inherent flexibility is one of its primary weaknesses as a tool for protecting hazard-prone areas. Forexample, the zoning for a parcel of land can be changed through variances, special use permits or rezonings.

Subdivision Regulations.

Subdivision regulations govern the division of land into smaller parcels for development or sale. Traditionally, subdivision regulations focused on the physical aspects of a proposed development: the arrangement of lots, the size and layout of streets, and the provision of stormwater facilities. Gradually, the regulations evolved to encompass the fiscal impacts of new development as well, ensuring that a community’s facilities and services will not be overburdened by new development (Platt, 1996).

Many local governments impose exactions on new subdivisions. For example, as a condition of approval, developers may be required to “dedicate” land for schools or for open space. Developers may pay a fee in lieu of donating land to the municipality. A typical subdivision requirement might call for a 50-foot setback of developed land (a buffer) from a stream or wetlands, or it might prohibit development on steep slopes (Porter, 1997). Thus, subdivision regulations could be used to require minimum setback distances from lands vulnerable to natural hazards, or to set aside such lands as open space.

Some jurisdictions allow developers to cluster homes in one portion of a subdivision while leaving a large portion of the site undeveloped. That is, by rearranging the density of each
development parcel, less than half of the buildable land will be consumed by lots and streets and the rest can be preserved permanently as woodlands, meadows, farms, or wetlands. This would result in the same number of houses as in a conventional subdivision, but the houses would be grouped closer together to protect natural areas, including floodplains, steep slopes, and other hazard-prone areas.

Transfer of Development Rights.

While not as common as zoning or subdivision regulations, transferrable development rights or TDRs are used in numerous communities to protect certain lands from development. Transfer of development right programs, which treat the right to develop land as a commodity separate from the land itself, work as follows. A local government identifies an area it wants to protect, say, undeveloped property in a floodplain or landslide-prone area. This area becomes the sending area from which TDRs can be purchased from willing landowners. Property owners in the sending area are awarded a set of development rights based on the value or acreage of land. The government then identifies an area, usually where it would like growth to occur, as a receiving area for these development rights. By purchasing TDRs from landowners in sending areas, developers typically can build at higher densities in the receiving areas than would otherwise be allowed by zoning. Landowners who sell TDRs in sending areas typically are prohibited from developing their land.

Transfer of development rights canbe used as a relatively low cost means of protecting sensitive lands. But TDRs is a complex system, which makes it difficult for planning staffs to implement and for landowners to understand and accept. Often it is unpopular with residents in the receiving zone, who are subject to development at densities higher than otherwise permitted by existing zoning. Perhaps most importantly, without strong development pressure in the receiving areas, there may be no market for the development rights.

Nonregulatory Tools

Nonregulatory tools can be equally as effective as regulations. Many rely on the market to determine whether and where development will occur. Some, such as limiting public  expenditures, can be implemented at virtually no cost to a local government. Others, such as acquisition, can be quite expensive. Some of the more common nonregulatory tools are
summarized below.

Limiting Public Investments in Hazard-Prone Areas.

Development in hazard-prone areas can be discouraged simply by withholding or restricting government spending for infrastructure in such areas. For example, a local government may choose not to extend roads or water and sewer lines into undeveloped floodplains or into an earthquake fault zone. The expenditure limitation is based on the premise that government spending for infrastructure encourages development in these areas and that removing the subsidies will discourage development, presumably by making it too expensive. This approach not only helps use existing services more efficiently, but can also reduce the pressure to develop in risky areas. The concept is similar to that of urban growth boundaries, beyond which infrastructure will not be extended, at least in the near future.

Acquisition of Hazard-Prone Lands.

Probably the best way to protect hazard-prone lands is simply to buy them, either outright in fee simple or as an easement. The purchased land can then be set aside  permanently as public open space. As mentioned previously, voluntary buyouts, which include purchase of vacant property, purchase and relocation of existing structures, or purchase and demolition of damaged structures, have become a major new focus in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) overall strategy to reduce flood losses. Buying properties that lie in the path of natural hazards often is cheaper in the long run than other forms of mitigation, plus it can serve multiple objectives, such as providing open space. Still, acquisition is expensive, especially in areas where property values are high, such as along the coast. Acquisition expenses include not only the cost of purchasing property, but program administration, property maintenance, and liability expenses as well. Small governments may lack sufficient resources to develop and implement an acquisition program.

Federal funds are available for acquisition of damage-prone properties, primarily through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). The Federal Disaster Assistance Act (Stafford Act) provides funds authorized by the federal government and made available by FEMA for a cost-share program to states after a Presidentially declared disaster. These funds can be used for acquisition. The HMGP provides 75% of the funds while the states provide 25% for mitigation measures through the post-disaster planning process. The state share may be met with cash or in-kind services.

Increase Public Awareness of Natural Hazards.

People often are unaware that the property they are about to buy is located in a hazard-prone location. Notifying potential purchasers in advance would allow them to make informed decisions about where to live or locate a business as well as take steps to safeguard their property from hazards. Thus, notification relies on the power of the marketplace to take corrective action once full knowledge about hazard conditions is obtained. In California, buyers are notified of an earthquake fault zone presence by real estate agents through a contract addendum at the time of purchase (Godschalk et al., 1998).

Many people are not aware that they live in a hazard-prone area until a disaster strikes. The post disaster time frame may be a good window in which to pass, for example, a local ordinance requiring disclosure of a hazard at the time of a property sale. As noted in Chapter 2, after one disaster is before the next one, so it is never too late to act.


Retrofitting means making changes to buildings to make them more resistant to hazards. Relocation and demolition are always mitigation options, but may be unrealistic when the
portion of land at risk is large; i.e., in a coastal community or a town along a major fault line. In those cases, making changes to existing buildings may be more practical and cost-effective. Communities that want to retrofit buildings should consider providing economic benefits to residents who are willing to take steps to protect themselves from future hazards.

Four ways to retrofit for the flood hazard are elevation, wet floodproofing, dry floodproofing, and the construction of levees or floodwalls. Elevation means raising the building so that the lowest floor is above the flood level. Under the National Flood Insurance Program, a home is required to be elevated or relocated if it is damaged in a flood to 50% or more of its pre-flood market value. Wet floodproofing makes uninhabited parts of a house resistant to flood damage when water is allowed to enter during a flood. Dry floodproofing is sealing a house to prevent flood waters from entering. Levees and floodwalls are barriers built to prevent flood waters from entering. Other things that homeowners should consider doing are raising electrical and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, anchoring fuel tanks, and installing a sewer backflow valve.

For seismic hazards, the main retrofit activities are bracing cripple walls and bolting sill plates to house foundations. Residents should also be encouraged to anchor tall items in their homes as well as valuable ones like computers. For new construction, there are other engineering methods to prevent seismic damage to buildings, but retrofitting for these design components can be difficult and expensive. The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program is charged with the development and enhancement of provisions to minimize structural damage and loss to life due to earthquakes. More information on seismic retrofitting can be obtained from FEMA, which administers the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.

For areas prone to coastal storm surge and hurricanes, several practices can be applied to existing construction. Hurricane straps, metal fasteners that attach the roof of a building to the walls, can reinforce a building’s capacity to withstand severe winds. Shutters are one of the most basic methods for preventing damage and can be easily attached to existing homes and businesses. In coastal areas where flooding is a concern, elevation is highly recommended. Wind-resistant windows, wind- and hail-resistant shingles, and hurricane-resistant doors are also available.

Tornado retrofitting is similar to hurricane retrofitting in many ways. The goal of tornado retrofitting is to reduce the “uplift” effect of strong winds. Straps to attach a roof to the walls are helpful, as are wind-resistant shingles, windows, and doors. Garage and entrance doors should be reinforced. In addition, trees and yard materials that could become wind-borne in a tornado should be removed. Finally, residents may consider constructing “safe rooms,” rooms that are reinforced, safe places to wait out a storm. FEMA publishes several how-to books to assist in the construction of safe rooms. Many states, including Arkansas, Mississippi, Hawaii, Iowa, and Oklahoma, have adopted safe room initiatives.

Warning and Preparedness

A warning system is a vital component of mitigation, because it allows both evacuation of people at risk and an additional window of time in which to take last-minute measures to secure property.

In deciding on a warning system, a community should consider such factors as what will happen to the warning system if the power is out, whether the warning system reaches all residents, and how it will promote the use of the system in the community so that people know what to do when a warning is issued. Collect reputation management pricing from your superiors and subordinates in order to refine your disaster plan.

Existing warning systems include the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which is a national system that can broadcast warnings via television and radio; the Radio Broadcast Data System, used for FM broadcasts; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Wire Service (NWWS); NOAA Weather Radio, which broadcasts to owners of radio transmittal devices designed for the system; Emergency Managers Weather Information Network (EMWIN); the Internet Weather Information Network (IWIN); and the Advanced Weather Information Processing System/Local Data Acquisition and Dissemination (AWIPS/LDAD).

Some municipalities also use sirens. The National Science and Technology Council recently summarized many of the issues associated with choosing and implementing warning systems (Working Group on Natural Disaster Information Systems, 2000).


Insurance is available for flood, earthquake, and wind hazards. Insurance is a useful means of sharing hazard risk and providing for financial assistance when natural disasters occur.
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) provides flood insurance to residents in flood prone communities that have enacted certain land use restrictions to mitigate the effect of future flooding. In order to make residents in a community eligible for flood insurance, the community must be a member of the program.

The NFIP state coordinator can determine whether a community is a member in good standing and, if not, determine what steps to take to make a community eligible. Earthquake insurance is available through several different insurance companies as an add-on. However, because of the high damage associated with earthquakes, the insurance can be very expensive. In California, the California Earthquake Authority (CEA), a state-sponsored, private public partnership, provides earthquake insurance to homeowners, renters, and condominium owners. It was implemented after the 1994 Northridge quake. Many insurance companies in California offer CEA’s insurance, which has a 15% deductible. Californians can also buy earthquake policies outside the CEA.

Wind insurance, like earthquake insurance, is available through several private insurance companies. However, in some hurricane-prone states, it can be difficult or impossible to get
coverage. In Florida, the Florida Windstorm Underwriting Association (FWUA), a group of insurers providing hurricane coverage to Florida homeowners who cannot get wind insurance in the regular market because of their hurricane exposure, is regulated by the state and provides insurance to residents. However, wind insurance remains extremely expensive in spite of this public-private partnership.