Cities Share Advice On Disaster Preparation & Response

This week’s news that Moore, Oklahoma had been devastated by another EF5 tornado – the second of that magnitude in 14 years – brought to mind a session at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Kansas City this past February. In that session, titled “Howling Winds and Ominous Skies: Disaster Resilience in the Age of Climate Change,” speakers recounted two extreme weather events and how local officials worked with state and federal agencies to deal with the aftermath and rebuild their communities.

The center of Greensburg, Kan., 12 days after it was hit by an EF5 tornado in 2007. The twister generated 210 mph winds and killed 11 people. Although the city lost nearly half its population, it recovered and today is a model for other cities racked by disaster.
Greensburg, Kan., 12 days after being hit by an EF5 tornado in 2007. The twister generated 210 mph winds and killed 11 people. Although the city lost nearly half its population, it recovered and today is a model for other cities racked by disaster.

A 2007 EF5 tornado that nearly wiped out the village of Greensburg, Kansas and a 2008 flood that spilled over the 500-year floodplain in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, provided valuable lessons to any community that finds itself in crisis.

Bob Dixon was elected mayor of Greensburg, population 777, in 2008 about a year after the 1.7-mile-wide tornado destroyed nearly every building in the community, including his own house. The city’s population was more than 1,500 prior to the storm.

“The concept of resiliency meant nothing to me until May 4, 2007 at 9:40 at night,” Dixon recalled. “Ninety-five percent of our community was leveled to the ground and turned to rubble, and the other five percent was severely damaged.”

The city took a direct hit from the tornado, which generated winds of 210 mph, killing 11 people.

Dixon joined Christine Butterfield, the community development director for the city of Cedar Rapids, in sharing insights at the conference. The panel also included Steve Castaner, branch chief of community recovery with Region VII of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Doug Kluck, central region climate services director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Butterfield became community development director in 2007, just seven months before the Cedar River overflowed its banks on June 13, 2008. The flood inundated a two-mile wide swath through the heart of the city, covering 1,400 city blocks with nearly 32 feet of muddy water. It was by far the worst flood in the city’s history, exceeding the previous record by 12 feet.

Butterfield said the flood engulfed the city’s downtown where many of its primary employers are located, and 5,900 homes had to be evacuated. “We had about 22,000 residents that were displaced and 900 businesses that were impacted,” she said. “The value of the damage was estimated at $7 billion.”

Making matters worse, 310 city facilities were caught in the deluge, including city hall and the public works building. The county courthouse was also damaged.

With 14 percent of its land mass under water, the city of 126,000 people was rocked to its core.

A common theme expressed by Dixon, Butterfield and Castaner was that a community destroyed by disaster can turn tragedy into an opportunity to build a better, more resilient city rather than just restoring the community to the way it was before the event.

“There is never a better opportunity to change systems, perspectives or mindsets than when a disaster hits,” Castaner said. “Once you get past the trauma, the hurting, the loss of either possessions or family and friends, there are real opportunities to change the mindsets and perspectives community-wide for a better, more resilient future.”

Contrary to what a lot of people think, Castaner said, FEMA does not tell communities what to do.

“We may advise them on what the impacts of their decisions might be on funding, insurance or other things, but we never tell a community what to do,” he said. “We don’t know all the answers, but we have the role of bringing partners to the table who can help communities look at alternatives and opportunities after a disaster.”

Some of those resources include services provided by the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, other state and federal agencies and numerous nonprofit organizations, he said.

Dixon said it was public/private partnerships and the determination of the people of Greensburg that allowed his town to rebuild and recover.

“Too many times, post disaster, communities think they’re entitled; that the state and federal government is going to come and make them whole. Ladies and gentlemen, that doesn’t happen,” Dixon said. “In America, we’re entitled to the opportunity to achieve. You pull all the resources to the table at the time you need them, and that’s what happened in Greensburg.”

Dixon cautioned against making major decisions too rapidly after a disaster. “You’re in an emotional state of mind. You’re going to doom yourself to what got you in this situation. Systematic problems will continue,” he said.

“Is your community resilient prior to disaster,” Dixon asked. “Are you sustainable? Do you have the ability to endure? Are you doing things for future generations? Are you smart, prudent and responsible in everything you do in your community? Do you have those public/private partnerships and work together?

“If you have that prior to disaster, you’re going to come out on the back side of that disaster in great shape,” he said.

“You have to be adaptive and willing to change; and willing to listen to every idea that’s out there.”

Castaner, who was part of the FEMA team that helped Cedar Rapids and Greensburg through their recoveries, said Cedar Rapids broke new ground by aggressively planning during the restoration and recovery process. He said the state of Iowa helped that process by giving the city time to develop those plans, while some other states often give their local communities restrictive funding windows that force reconstruction to begin before solid planning has had a chance to take place.

When the water receded, the Cedar Rapids City Council organized around the concept that restoring the damaged properties would not be enough. The disaster recovery plan had to provide protections from future flood events. Rather than sit back and wait for direction from state and federal agencies, Butterfield said the city government took ownership of the challenge.

“There is a real lack of clarity on the role of government in response and recovery,” she said. “Understanding where one agency’s role ends and another agency’s role begins is a critical part of resiliency.”

Communicating with other cities that had recovered from similar disasters provided a laundry list of best practices and things to avoid, Butterfield said.

An immediate concern was reining in the massive influx of building contractors and homeowners eager to repair their damaged properties. Butterfield said the city shut down any non-essential services and repurposed all available staff to help conduct background checks and issue special permits to contractors, taking great care to prevent citizens from being swindled.

The city engaged more than 3,000 residents in a four-month community dialog to develop a plan for recovery and protection from future floods.

“They said, ‘We want to retain our neighborhoods, but we also want to provide more room for the river to flow,’” Butterfield said.

After receiving input from the public, the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and about 11 different consulting groups, city staff developed a flood protection plan that was approved by the council in November of 2008. The plan was a combination of structural and non-structural measures to safeguard the city. Developing the plan was a lot of work, but implementing it would prove exhausting.

In order to complete 10 neighborhood redevelopment plans in four months, the community development team surveyed other cities, developed a set of best practices, and held eight more public meetings.

“We asked the community and business owners how they wanted to see housing recover, how they wanted to see businesses recover, where did they want to see them located, how would it be integrated with flood protection, including flood walls and levees, and how did they want to ensure the community was stronger once it was implemented?”

In May of 2009, 11 months after the flood, the council approved the development plans and the recovery of Cedar Rapids began to take shape.

In tiny Greensburg, getting input from community stakeholders was easy.

“We were all homeless – the whole community. So it was very easy when FEMA came and put us up a big tent on the east side of town. We’d have 4 or 5 hundred people show up at community meetings and planning sessions facilitating a long-term recovery plan. Everybody was listened to and provided an opportunity to be heard. … It’s about conversation and collaboration; listening to everybody, even people in those CAVE organizations (citizens against virtually everything) that every community has. There are some good nuggets and ideas in what they have to say. Listen to them.”

In hindsight, the disasters in Cedar Rapids and Greensburg, combined with Hurricane Katrina and other storms of the past decade, seem to have marked the beginning of a gradually escalating problem: The increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events as a consequence of climate change. While climate and weather data clearly validate that presumption, they can’t predict exactly where and when the next major event will occur, said NOAA’s Kluck. He said governing bodies need to make sure their policies stay up to date with changing realities.

“It’s very hard to build resiliency with laws and policies that were written in the 40s and 50s that may not even be realistic,” Kluck said. He used the example of the Colorado River, where water allotments were decided as far back as the 1920s, a time when precipitation and snow melt far exceeded that of recent years.

Kluck said local governments can get a wealth of information about local climate and weather conditions on three federal web sites:, and

For Dixon, the role of government is to prepare communities in advance to be resilient in the face of disaster.

“Are you operating in your community as crisis managers, or visionary managers? We’re all good at putting out fires. But those fires will keep coming if you don’t have a vision and a commitment to a brighter tomorrow; to address those systematic problems that keep coming up.”


Related Video:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.