The discipline of mitigation provides the means for reducing the impacts of disaster events. Mitigation is defined as a sustained action to reduce or eliminate risk to people and property from hazards and their effects.
The function of mitigation differs from the other emergency management disciplines because it looks at long-term solutions to reducing risk as opposed to preparedness for hazards, the immediate response to a hazard or the short-term recovery from a hazard event. Mitigation is usually not considered part of the emergency phase of a disaster as in response, or as part of emergency planning as in preparedness.
The recovery function of emergency management still represents one of the best opportunities for mitigation, and until recently, this phase in a disaster provided the most substantial funding for mitigation activities. In recent years, there has been a trend to greater Federal spending on pre-disaster mitigation first in Project Impact and the establishment of the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program.
There is another difference that sets mitigation apart from the other disciplines of emergency management. Implementing mitigation programs and activities requires the participation and support of a broad spectrum of players outside of the traditional emergency management circle. Mitigation involves, among others, land use planners, construction and building officials, both public and private, business owners, insurance companies, community leaders and politicians.
Tools for Mitigation Most practitioners agree that the primary intent of mitigation is to ensure that fewer communities and individuals become victims of disasters. The goal of mitigation is to create economically secure, socially stable, better built and more environmentally sound, communities that are out of harms way. There are numerous tools available to accomplish this task.
Hazard Identification and Mapping The most essential part of any mitigation strategy or plan is an analysis of what the hazards are in a particular area. The resources for hazards identification are numerous. The Federal government has extensive programs that map virtually every hazard and these products are available to communities. FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) provides detailed flood maps and studies and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) provides extensive earthquake and landslide studies and maps. Many State agencies have refined the products for hazards identification. For example, special soil stability studies and geological investigations which are required in some parts of California further refine this analysis.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have become ubiquitous and staples for all local planning organizations. What is often missing from the available tools is the ability to superimpose the human and built environment onto the hazards, thereby providing a quantified level of risk. FEMA has developed one such tool called HAZUS. HAZUS is a nationally applicable methodology for estimating losses from earthquakes at the community or regional level. Currently, FEMA is expanding HAZUS to cover hurricane, or wind losses and floods.
Design and Construction Applications The design and construction process provides one of the most cost-effective means of addressing risk. This process is governed by building codes, architecture and design criteria, and soils and landscaping considerations. Most often code criteria that support risk reduction apply only to new construction, substantial renovation or renovation to change the type or use of the building.
Enactment of building codes are the responsibility of the States and most State codes are derivatives of one of the three model codes which reflect geographical differences across the United States. Some States delegate code adoption responsibility to more local governmental authorities. Because of cost, codes that require rehabilitation of existing potential-hazardous structures have been rarely implemented.
The construction process offers other opportunities. For example, using fire retardant building materials such as slate instead of wood for roofing, is important in areas of wildland/urban interface such as Oakland, CA. Constructing houses on pilings allows for uninterrupted flow of high velocity waves in coastal areas.
Landscaping is particularly critical in areas of potential wildfires because vegetation close to structures can become fuel for a fire. Clearing, grading, and siting all have potential impacts to soil stability and erosion and can be included as part of a design or building permit review process.
Land Use Planning Mitigation programs are most successful when undertaken at the local level where most decisions about development are made. The strategies for land use planning offer many options for effecting mitigation. These include: acquisition, easements, storm water management, annexation, environmental review, and floodplain management plans. It also encompasses a myriad of zoning options such as density controls, special uses permits, historic preservation, coastal zone management, and subdivision controls.
Land use planning was one of the earliest tools used to encourage mitigation. In 1968 Congress passed the National Flood Insurance Act that established the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). This act required local governments to pass a flood plain management ordinance in return for Federally backed, low-cost flood insurance being available to the community.
Moving structures out of harms way through property acquisition is clearly the most effective land use planning tool but it is also the most costly. Following the Midwest Floods of 1993, FEMA worked with Congress to make property acquisition more feasible by providing a substantial increase in funding for acquisition after a disaster.
Financial Incentives This is one of the emerging areas for promoting mitigation. Among the approaches being used by localities to reduce risk are creation of special tax assessments, passage of tax increases or bonds to pay for mitigation, relocation assistance and targeting of Federal community development or renewal grant funds for mitigation.
The economic impacts of repetitive flooding led the citizens of Napa, California and Tulsa, Oklahoma to pass small tax increases to pay for flood mitigation activities. In both cases, the tax had minimal impact on the citizens of the community but had a major impact in reducing the potential economic losses from future floods. Berkeley, California has passed over ten different bond issues to support seismic retrofit of public buildings, schools and private residences.
Funding from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been used extensively to support local efforts at property acquisition and relocation. These funds have been used to meet the non-Federal match on other Federal funding which has often been a stumbling block to local mitigation. Other Federal programs of the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Economic Development Administration provide financial incentives for mitigation.
Insurance There are some people who would argue with the inclusion of insurance as a mitigation tool. Their reasoning is that insurance by itself really only provides for a transfer of the risk from the individual or community to the insurance company. While this is a true statement, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is the prime example of how, if properly designed, the insurance mechanism can be a tool for mitigation. The NFIP is considered to be one of the most successful mitigation programs ever created.
The NFIP was created by Congress in response to the damages from multiple, severe hurricanes and inland flooding and the rising costs of disaster assistance after these floods. At that time, flood insurance was not readily available or affordable through the private insurance market. Since many of the people being impacted by this flooding were low income, Congress agreed to subsidize the cost of the insurance so the premiums would be affordable.
The idea was to reduce the costs to the government of disaster assistance through insurance. The designers of this program, with great insight, thought the government should get something for their subsidy. So in exchange for the low cost insurance they required that communities pass an ordinance directing future development away from the floodplain.
Today there are over 20,000 communities in the NFIP who have mitigation programs in place.
Structural Controls Structural controls are controversial as a mitigation tool. Structural controls have usually been used to protect existing development. In doing so, they can have both positive and negative impacts on the areas they are not protecting. In addition, as the name implies they are used to control the hazard not reduce it. Invariably, as was seen so graphically in the Midwest floods, they lose control and nature wins. However, in some circumstances, structural controls are the only alternative.
The most common form of structural control is the levee. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) have designed and built levees as flood control structures across the United States. Levees are part of the aging infrastructure of America. As mitigation tools, they have obvious limitations. They can be overtopped or breached, as in the 1993 Midwest Floods, and they give a false sense of safety that often promotes increased development and they can exacerbate the hazard in other locations.
After the 1993 Floods, a major rethinking of our dependency on levees has occurred. Efforts are being made to acquire structures built behind the levees, new design criteria are being considered and other more wetland friendly policies are being adopted. But for a city like New Orleans, which is built below sea level and relocation is impractical, levees can be used effectively to protect flood prone areas.
Other structural controls are intended to protect along coastal areas. Sea walls, bulkheads, breakwaters, groins and jetties are intended to provide stabilization of the beach or reduce the impacts of wave action. These structures are equally controversial as they provide protection in one place and increase the damage in another. The shore of New Jersey is a prime example of the failure of seawalls as a solution to shoreline erosion problems. Cape May, New Jersey, where cars used to be raced on the beach, lost all of its beachfront. An on going beach replenishment project is the only thing that has brought some of it back.
Impediments to Mitigation If there are so many tools that can be applied, why hasn’t risk reduction and mitigation programs been more widely applied. There are several factors including denial of the risk, political will, costs and lack of funding and the taking issue. In spite of the best technical knowledge, historic occurrence, public education and media attention, many individuals don’t want to recognize that they or their communities are vulnerable.
Recognition requires action and it could have economic consequences as businesses decide to locate elsewhere if they find the community is at risk. Some people are willing to try to beat the odds but if a disaster strikes, they know the government will help them out. Gradually, attitudes are changing. Potential liability issues are making communities more aware, media attention to disasters has brought public pressure and the government has provided both incentives and penalties for not taking action.
As we have said, mitigation provides a long-term benefit. Our political system tends to focus on short-term rewards. Developers are large players in the political process and are often concerned that mitigation means additional costs. Mitigation strategies and actions require political vision and will. As Tip O’Neil, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives said, “All politics is local.” Well, so is mitigation. Local elected officials are the individuals who have to promote, market and endorse adopting risk reduction as a goal. For many elected officials, the development pressures are too much, funding is lacking and other priorities dominate their agendas. However, with the increasing attention to the economic, social and political costs of not dealing with their risks, more elected officials are recognizing that they can’t afford not to take action.
Mitigation costs money. Most mitigation of new structures or development can be passed on to the builder or buyer without much notice. Programs of retrofit of existing structures or acquisition and relocation projects are expensive and almost always beyond the capacity of the local government. Funding for mitigation comes primarily from Federal programs that need to be matched with State or local dollars. As State and local budgets constrict, their ability to match is reduced.
Strong arguments can be made that it is in the best financial interest of the Federal government to support mitigation. These arguments and a series of large disasters resulted in substantial increases in Federal funding, including new monies for pre-disaster mitigation. But the fact remains, mitigation needs far outweigh mitigation funding.
Many mitigation actions involve privately owned property. A major legal issue surrounding this is the taking issue. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the taking of property without just compensation. What constitutes a taking, under what circumstances and what is just compensation have been the focus of numerous legal cases. Several have dealt with the use of property in the floodplain and the use of oceanfront property on a barrier island. The decisions have been mixed and taking will continue to be an issue in implementing mitigation programs and policies.
The three case studies included in this chapter highlight a cross section of available mitigation tools, the process of community involvement and partnership building that is a significant part of the mitigation planning process and some of the impediments to effective mitigation.