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The Revival of Hazard Mitigation Plans

Authored by Jayme Breschard | April 15, 2024

Hazard mitigation planning is having a renaissance as climate adaptation and resilience surges as a planning trend.  Hazard Mitigation Plans (HMP) are the source of short- and long-term mitigation strategies and actions for communities to reduce vulnerability and risk to natural hazard events.  The plans require updating every five years (with state and federal approval, and local adoption) as a precondition for receiving FEMA mitigation project grants. The purpose of hazard mitigation planning is to protect public safety and prevent loss of life and injury that may result from natural hazard events such as flooding and severe storms by undertaking mitigation actions before the disaster, or while rebuilding after a disaster.

Hazard mitigation, however, is a planning process that can sometimes be tedious for communities and the public.  As opposed to municipal comprehensive plans or other local community projects, enticing the public to attend and participate in HMP meetings or workshops can be a challenge, as well as communicating the importance to local officials for full participation. The reason may be attributed to its routine five-year update.  Though, this is not always the case; communities that face perpetual large-scale flooding may find hazard mitigation planning crucial.  Case in point, the Village of Owego which is the county seat in Tioga County, New York and identified as a FEMA Community Disaster Resilience Zone.

The community found opportunity with their multi-jurisdictional plan. In New York State, HMPs are typically county-wide studies that are multi-jurisdictional.  Every jurisdiction within the county’s borders, such as cities, towns, and villages, has a jurisdictional annex.  As the annex is a stand-alone guide to mitigation planning that allows stakeholders to assess capabilities and develop unique mitigation actions, the Village of Owego approached their jurisdictional annex as an opportunity to leverage both the New York State Climate Smart Communities (CSC) Certification Program and the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP) Community Rating System (CRS). The Village partnered with the County’s HMP consultant, Barton & Loguidice (B&L), and Southern Tier 8 Regional Board to develop an annex that could become eligible for points in the CSC program for a Climate Adaptation Plan, Climate Vulnerability Assessment, and Policy Evaluation for Climate Resilience as well as the CRS for Activity 510 (Floodplain Management Planning).

“Collaborating with B&L on the Village of Owego’s Hazard Mitigation Plan Annex has enabled the Village to innovatively progress in NYS’s Climate Smart Communities Program, the NFIP’s Community Rating System, and develop a climate-resilient hazard mitigation plan,” said Julie Nucci, Village of Owego Climate Smart Communities Task Force Chair and consultant (J. Nucci Consulting, LLC) and Ashley Seyfried, Sustainability Coordinator at Southern Tier 8 Regional Board.  “Through this process, the Village is better able to: understand hazards and approaches to mitigation, adapt to a changing climate, and apply for grant funding. The process has catalyzed the Village’s efforts towards becoming a more sustainable and prepared community.”

FEMA released new guidance that became effective in April 2023 that provides an outline on FEMA strategic priorities for HMPs. This includes planning for climate change, future conditions, and equity. These requirements provide new ways for integrating hazard mitigation planning into community planning, and refocusing the narrative to one that aligns with emerging trends related to the future of planning.

B&L has been approaching these new requirements with methods that have been applied in other planning services, such as community engagement plans.  An engagement plan outlines a set of specific outreach and public participation strategies with assigned roles and a timeline for new or reoccurring projects that will impact the community. Typical components include core participants, key stakeholders, and a schedule of events.  By working with a project team, steering committee, or internal working group, the engagement plan has helped identify communication methods and potential community partners to better engage with socially vulnerable populations and underserved communities.

Another method has been the integration of web-based, user-friendly tools for risk assessment.  The Climate Mapping for Resilience and Adaptation (CMRA) Assessment Tool provides an interactive map for selection of a county or census tract(s) to evaluate selected hazard profiles. The CMRA Assessment Tool allows for projects of these hazards for near term (Early Century, 2015 – 2044), intermediate (Mid Century, 2035 – 2064), and long term (Late Century, 2070 – 2099) scenarios. Within each climate hazard available for evaluation, various projections are available. For each projection, the CMRA Assessment Tool provides an estimate for both low emission and high emission scenarios, including the level of change since the period of 1976 – 2005. In addition to tabular summaries of projection data, the CMRA Assessment Tool provides one-page reports for select hazards which may be exported and appended to a HMP for the identification of future climate hazards.

With each updated HMP across the country, a better connection between mitigation planning and community planning is occurring, taking into account the effects of climate change and other future conditions while including community lifelines and non-profits that support underserved communities.

These plans can emerge as a transformed planning tool for addressing the future of climate mitigation as well as tackling emerging topics such as climate displacement.  It is an exciting time to be a hazard mitigation planner, with new avenues for getting communities and the public more engaged in the process by building resilience to current and future disaster risks.

Originally published in the American Planning Association Upstate New York Chapter’s Spring 2024 Newsletter.