Fall 2008

Planner Spotlight

Hazard Mitigation Planning in Story County, Iowa

Planning for hazards important for recovery and economic stability in the wake of a disaster

By Leanne A. Harter, AICP

The Story County Planning and Zoning Department oversees land use and development activity for the unincorporated areas of Story County, Iowa. Building on a sound history with the first set of regulations — Zoning Ordinance No. 1 — adopted in 1958, the professional planning staff continually reviews new program areas such as local food systems planning, regulations addressing wind farms, and other initiatives. Starting in 2005, the Department ventured into another new territory as the plan author for the Story County Multi-Jurisdictional Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan. Building on an established partnership between the Story County Emergency Management Commission and Planning and Zoning Department, shaped through flooding events in the 1990s, conducting damage assessment training for better preparedness, and cooperatively sharing information and data gathering — the Emergency Management Coordinator looked to the planning staff to assist with hazard mitigation planning. During 2005, many of the practices marking ongoing collaboration between the two departments were formalized through a memorandum of understanding between the Story County Emergency Management Commission and the Story County Board of Supervisors (who appoint the Planning and Zoning Department Director). 

The Story County Planning and Zoning Department was contracted (as the consultant) to complete the plan for the communities of Cambridge, Collins, Colo, Gilbert, Huxley, Kelley, Maxwell, McCallsburg, Nevada, Roland, Sheldahl (portion within Story County), Slater, Story City, and Zearing. Cooperatively planning on a multi-hazard basis as demonstrated in the plan benefits all jurisdictions involved throughout the process and combines resources to identify existing needs and issues. 

The aftermath of flooding in Story CountyStory County consists of 16 townships, 15 incorporated cities, and 4 unincorporated towns. According to 2000 U.S. Census figures, Story County's population was 79,981 persons, of whom 71,114 resided in the incorporated areas. Located in Central Iowa, north of the Des Moines Metropolitan Statistical Area, the county is bisected by Interstate 35 from north to south through the communities of Story City, Ames, and Huxley; U.S. Highway 30 from the east to the west through the communities of Colo, Nevada, and Ames; U.S. Highway 65 runs north to south through the communities of Colo, Collins, and Zearing; and U.S. Highway 69 north to south through the communities of Ames, Huxley, and west of Story City. The county road system entirely replaced pioneer trails by the late 1870s and railroads spurred expansion, and even relocation, of towns by the end of the 1880s.  Today, one of the main east-to-west rail-lines of the Union-Pacific Railroad bisects the county, carrying nearly 60 trains daily, transporting goods from lumber to food products to ethanol and all the other goods carried via the railroad system.

The land was originally prairie with the exception of some groves along the larger streams in the area. With boundaries officially established in 1846, the square-shaped county contains 576 square miles.  Earliest settlers in Story County were farmers, and early industries focused on agriculture-related needs such as water-powered lumber and gristmills. The prairies dominating the Story County landscape were converted into cultivated lands in the early 1900s, accomplished through extensive installation of drainage tile networks and systems.

Story County contains a number of major rivers, streams, and watersheds. Many jurisdictions involved in the Story County Multi-Jurisdictional Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan participate in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP): Story City, Roland, McCallsburg, Zearing, Gilbert, Nevada, Collins, Maxwell, Cambridge, Huxley, Slater, and unincorporated Story County.  Current maps, revised through FEMA's Map Modernization effort, became effective on February 20, 2008.  All of these jurisdictions have experienced flooding at various levels, and, in the past (as well as in the coming months following the June 2008 flooding) have used mitigation strategies such as flood buyouts to reduce flooding-related impacts.

While largely agricultural in nature, Story County is a growing area. Historically, urban employment has been governmentally oriented with Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Transportation, and the National Animal Disease Center all located in Ames. Communities are experiencing industrial and commercial growth and limited residential developments, and with growth and increasing diversity of industrial and commercial activities, come increased potential for hazards. Potential hazards do not stop at corporate limit lines, and hazard analyses conducted with the plan recognize this.

Story County Multi-Jurisdictional Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan Development

As hazard mitigation planning is not a topic generally discussed and deliberated in planning curricula, planning staff started at the beginning — looking to answer what a hazard mitigation plan is and what purpose it serves. Furthermore, we looked at what steps we needed to follow to meet federal and state requirements and develop meaningful, "do-able" strategies which positively effectuate hazard mitigation.

Why do hazard mitigation planning? 

Process used by Story County Planning and Zoning Department in developing the Story County Multi-Jurisdictional Multi-Hazard Mitigation PlanA simple, quick answer is that purse strings controlled by FEMA (and state agencies) after hazards occur are tied to approved hazard mitigation plans. To be blunt — if you have an approved plan, and you seek financial assistance from such entities after a disaster has occurred, you are eligible. However, if you don't have a plan in place, some funding streams simply don't exist as options to consider. The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 (DMA 2000) requires state and local governments to prepare hazard mitigation plans in order to remain eligible to receive funds available following federally-declared disasters. This being said, it is also important to remember that pre-disaster mitigation funds are separate and distinct from those federal and state funds used in direct post-disaster relief. There are two relevant FEMA pots of money: Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) funds, which are competitive grants for mitigation prior to any particular event — in essence, in the absence of a motivating event; and Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds, which are made available only after an event, with the amount based on the overall amount of disaster assistance provided.

Requirements set forth in the DMA 2000, however, effectively improve the disaster planning process by increasing hazard mitigation planning requirements for hazard events and requiring participating municipalities to document planning processes and identify hazards, potential losses, and mitigation needs, goals, and strategies. To implement the DMA 2000 requirements, an Interim Final Rule (the Rule) which established mitigation planning requirements for states, tribes, and local communities, was published by FEMA in the Federal Register in early 2002. Specific to the local level, the DMA 2000, as outlined in Section 201.6 of the Interim Rule, requires that local jurisdictions demonstrate proposed mitigation actions based on sound planning processes accounting for inherent risks and capabilities of individual communities. 

Aside from the financial aspect, which really cannot be trivialized when jurisdictions face potential reduced tax bases in the wake of a disaster — negatively affecting the ability to deliver demanded and expected services — benefits from mitigation planning are numerous. 

What does mitigation mean and how do communities benefit from such planning? 

FEMA defines mitigation as "any sustained action taken to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to human life and property from a hazard event."  According to FEMA, the long-term benefits of mitigation planning include:

  • an increased understanding of hazards faced by communities;
  • more sustainable and disaster-resistant communities;
  • financial savings through partnerships that support planning and mitigation efforts;
  • focused use of limited resources on hazards that have the biggest impact on a community; and
  • reduced long-term impacts and damages to human health and structures and reduced repair costs.

With that definition in mind, a mitigation plan is a document intended to accomplish several things.  In particular, and relevant to the Story County planning effort, project planners reviewed and re-evaluated hazard identification, analyses, and risk assessments; capability assessments; assessment of alternative hazard mitigation measures and needs; mitigation action plan items; and developed a meaningful monitoring plan. These analyses were conducted on a comprehensive basis from a multi-jurisdictional perspective. FEMA defines a multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan as a plan "jointly prepared by more than one jurisdiction," where the term jurisdiction means "local government," further defined by FEMA as "any county, municipality, city, town, township, public authority, school district, special district, intrastate district, council of governments (regardless of whether the council of  governments is incorporated as a nonprofit corporation under state law), regional or interstate government entity, or agency or instrumentality of a local government; any Indian tribe or authorized tribal organization, or Alaska Native village or organization; and any rural community, unincorporated town or village, or other public entity."

Over a period of several months, at all times very closely following FEMA's guiding documents for plan development, most specifically Mitigation Planning How-To Guide #8: Multi-Jurisdictional Mitigation Planning (FEMA 386-8), planning staff worked through the hazard identification, analyses, and risk assessments. Individual planning committees for each community involved in the planning endeavor were established, and planning staff met with each community to review hazard prioritization and to discuss (and select) potential mitigation strategies applicable for each hazard present in a jurisdiction. Staff analyzed thirty-seven hazards (following guidance from the state's mitigation planning efforts) for each community, with such hazards containing natural, human-caused accidental, human-caused purposeful and other hazards, such as building collapse or structural fires. 

Following identification and hazard scoring, mitigation strategies for the top ten hazards present in each community were prioritized, again following guidance from FEMA, specifically analyzing hazards using the STAPLEE+ criteria (social, technical, administrative, political, legal, economical, and environmental). Scoring methodologies reviewing the following areas were employed to establish a numerical point from which strategies could be prioritized:

  • benefits of the project — high, medium or low;
  • costs of the project — high, medium or low;
  • benefits equal to or exceeding costs;
  • grant eligibility of the project;
  • availability of project/strategy to be funded through existing programs and budgets; and
  • priority — high, medium or low.

An action plan included in the Story County Multi-Jurisdictional Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan assigns project time frames and responsible parties for the mitigation activities selected by communities and prioritized in the Plan.  Crucial to successful implementation of the plan is the continuation of partnerships established between the Story County Emergency Management Commission and Story County Planning and Zoning Department, as well as among the communities collectively involved in the planning endeavor. Concepts outlined in the plan encourage decision-making from a holistic fashion rather than from individual community perspectives.  Many of the strategies established by the plan can only be successfully accomplished through the collaborative approach of all the communities involved. 

Flooding of 2008 — What Lies Ahead for Iowa

In June 2008, eighty-five of Iowa's ninety-nine counties were declared Presidential Disaster Areas for Individual Assistance, Public Assistance, or both (for FEMA assistance). Story County was included as one of those eighty-five counties. While flooding in Story County was substantial, impacts to residential and non-residential (commercial) properties were not as great as in other areas of the state — largely attributed to mitigation practices already undertaken (following past events). 

On June 27, 2008, Iowa Governor Chet Culver signed Executive Order Seven, setting in motion an intense process to engage Iowans at all levels, to assess the damage to the extent possible, and to make recommendations to the Governor by September 2, 2008. Immediately, the Governor named a 15-member Rebuild Iowa Advisory Commission (RIAC) and created the Rebuild Iowa Office to give focus and support to the recovery and rebuilding of the state. The Executive Order also dictates the RIAC develop a written report to be presented within 45 days. As stated in the Commission's 45-day report:

As significant as Iowa's damage is in 2008, it is also important to recognize that damages would have been considerably worse in many areas without the ongoing work of communities, counties, and local and state emergency management agencies to prepare for, plan, and mitigate impacts of future disasters. Damages in some areas were minimized as a benefit of the mitigation measures that were able to be implemented with mitigation assistance following the 1993 floods. Other areas have implemented mitigation projects as the needs are identified and justified. Iowa has a strong planning, preparedness, and mitigation focus which, taken as a whole, served the state well in the recent disasters.

The DMA 2000 encourages such collaboration in pre-disaster planning, promoting sustainability as a strategy for disaster resistance.  As outlined in the DMA 2000, "sustainable hazard mitigation" includes sound management of natural resources, local economic and social resiliency, and recognition that hazards and mitigation must be understood in the largest possible social and economic context. Planning for and identifying strategies to accomplish sustainability in the context of hazard mitigation planning as envisioned by DMA 2000, previously minimal in planning endeavors, must be built into the comprehensive planning processes for jurisdictions. As Ian McHarg wrote in Design with Nature, there is "no reason to believe that the last storm was the worst."

The Rebuild Iowa Advisory Commission's 45-day report also makes a resounding statement for those involved in the planning trenches:

Planning is an essential tool in making Iowa a better and more livable state. Planning often occurs as an autonomous exercise by the state and federal government, city and county government, school districts, regional planning organizations, and other entities. There is a need for a determined effort to integrate efforts across organizations and sectors to ensure more comprehensive planning. More focused regional planning would give Iowa an advantage in its rebuilding effort and allow the state to better address disaster mitigation.

While many land use regulations require "mitigation" at different levels — for example, the Story County Land Development Regulations require the replacement of significant trees (when removed for development) as a mitigation strategy — beyond that (aside from floodplain regulations), hazard mitigation strategies incorporated into general planning documents and implementation measures are minimal.  Past practice has been reactive rather than proactive.  Initially, planning staff found similarity between hazard mitigation planning and the broader approach of comprehensive planning, for example, in the similar use of concepts of the GRAPE analogy (Goals, Research, Alternatives, Policies, and Effectuation), as taught by Dr. Riad Mahayni, FAICP, at Iowa State.  Rather that producing plans that are redundant or contradictory, perhaps coordinated efforts under the larger umbrella of the comprehensive plan should include text devoted to hazard mitigation planning. 

The American Planning Association has identified this missing link and is beginning to address the role of both planning and professional planners in hazard mitigation planning. As stated on the APA website, work must be done to identify how to go forward successfully to "move beyond the serious disconnect that often exists between [hazard mitigation] planning and other local planning activities. The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, which conditions eligibility for hazard mitigation grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) upon a state's or local jurisdiction's official participation in an approved local hazard mitigation plan under the act, has moved many communities forward in thinking about such plans. But there remains considerable room for improvement in tying those plans effectively to daily planning activities in those communities" (www.planning.org/research/hazards/index.htm).

The Story County Multi-Jurisdictional Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan reflects a continuation of partnerships established to positively guide decision-making.  It is a beginning, proactive step — one upon which future planning endeavors will build and greater coordination will result. We will face more storms; man-made hazards will still exist — whether accidental or intentional. But, the steps we have taken thus far represent a commitment to acknowledge as well as work towards changing the "disconnect" existing among all planning efforts.

Leanne Harter is the Planning Director of Story County. She is a graduate of Central College in Pella, Iowa, and Iowa State University in Ames with degrees in Political Science and Community and Regional Planning. While at Iowa State University, her graduate work focused on the historic Lincoln Highway through Iowa. Leanne started her planning career with the City of Fort Collins before returning to Iowa accepting a position with Story County.


Images: Top — The aftermath of flooding in Story County. Photo courtesy Story County Planning and Zoning Department. Bottom — Process used by Story County Planning and Zoning Department in developing the Story County Multi-Jurisdictional Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan. Photo courtesy Story County Planning and Zoning Department.