When Disaster Strikes, Is Your Community Ready?

About the Author

CED Guest Author

Norma Houston is a School of Government faculty member.

North Carolina is no stranger to disasters.  Natural events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, winter storms, mudslides, and floods have assailed every corner of our state.  Man-made events such as chemical plant explosions, natural gas leaks, and hazardous materials spills can strike virtually without warning.  When a major disaster strikes, federal, state, and local emergency management agencies call on a wide array of government, non-profit, and private organizations to help their communities recover.  How can community and economic development organizations help?

What is emergency management?

For community and economic development organizations to be fully engaged in helping rebuild their communities after a disaster, it is helpful to know how disaster response and recovery operations work.  These operations are coordinated by emergency management agencies at the local, state, and federal levels (such as FEMA).  Emergency managers are not first responders; they coordinate the efforts of first responder agencies and other entities involved in response and recovery operations.

While response and recovery are the most visible aspects of emergency management, the mission of these agencies is much broader.  Emergency management is those measures taken to minimize the adverse effect of any type of disaster, which includes the “never‑ending preparedness cycle” of planning, response, recovery, and mitigation.  Planning is a vital part of this process.  It involves identifying and assessing potential hazards and risks, and developing plans to respond to, recover from, and mitigate against those risks.

How does it work?

In North Carolina, counties take the lead in coordinating emergency management activities at the local government level (cities coordinate their efforts through the county’s emergency management agency).  During a disaster event, when local communities need additional assistance, those requests are sent from the county to the state Division of Emergency Management.  NCDEM coordinates regional and statewide response and recovery operations, including shared resources among local governments through mutual aid agreements.  If assistance is needed from other states or the federal government, NCDEM coordinates these requests through FEMA.  These agencies also coordinate the efforts of non-profits, disaster relief organizations, the private sector, and volunteers.

What assistance is available?

When disaster strikes, assistance to communities comes in a variety of forms.  Disaster relief organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and many others provide invaluable services ranging from food and shelter to clothing and supplies.  In our state, as in most others, disaster relief organizations coordinate their activities through the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NCVOAD).

Government assistance also takes many forms such as debris removal and public infrastructure repairs.  In major disasters, state and federal funding programs reimburse local governments for eligible response and recovery costs (referred to as “public assistance”).  Financial assistance and other services are also available to impacted residents and businesses (referred to as “individual assistance”), and emergency loans can be available through the U.S. Small Business Administration.  These programs are time-limited, and affected individuals and businesses must submit applications for assistance before program deadlines in order to qualify.

While certainly helpful, state and federal individual assistance programs are not intended to – and oftentimes do not – fully compensate disaster victims for all of their expenses and losses.  Unmet needs can be filled somewhat  by charitable and faith-based organizations, but even with this additional assistance, some disaster victims still are left struggling to fully recover.  Low-income families, the uninsured and under-insured, elderly and medically fragile individuals, and small businesses are especially vulnerable to the long-term physical and financial impacts of a disaster.

How can community and economic development organizations help?

Many community economic development (CED) organizations have experience with establishing programs and delivering assistance to communities in need (through loan and grant programs and other forms of direct support).  Following a disaster, that experience may be helpful as public officials formulate their local response and attempt to address unmet needs.  Not only can CED organizations help impacted communities access state and federal assistance programs, they can even retool their own programs to help fill unmet needs.  For example, following the April 16th tornadoes, the City of Raleigh reallocated $400,000 in housing bond resources to provide small deferred loans to underinsured low- and moderate-income homeowners for unmet home repair needs.

CED organizations can also be helpful in planning and preparedness efforts, identifying community and economic vulnerabilities and working with local emergency managers to assess community risks and develop plans to mitigate against those risks.  What populations within the community are especially vulnerable to the socioeconomic impacts of a disaster?  Are there neighborhoods susceptible to significant housing impacts such as trailer parks or homes in flood zones?  Do local businesses have disaster recovery and business continuity plans?  Are the programs that CED organizations can offer to assist disaster victims?  Do future community and economic development plans take disaster risks into account?  Finally, in the aftermath of a major disaster when recovery may take months, even years, how can that rebuilding be achieved to not only put the community back on its feet, but strengthen it in the process?

Don’t wait for disaster to strike.

Community and economic development organizations can start now by contacting their county emergency manager to discuss how they can become engaged in their local emergency management program.  If your organization has specific examples of your involvement in disaster planning, response, recovery, or mitigation, please feel free to share those experiences with us.

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