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Readying Local Governments for Hurricane Season

Seamus Leary

Mar 21, 2023

Planning ahead for an effective disaster recovery.

When most people think about being prepared for a disaster, they picture the immediate aftermath of the event. Unconsciously, they are considering what they need to do in the hours and days after a disaster. 

In Emergency Management, this is called the “Response Phase” of the disaster cycle. These are the actions which are necessary to stabilize the situation, save lives and limit property damage. Preparing for the Response Phase is very important and most organizations focus much of their preparedness efforts in this area. 

What is often neglected in preparing for a future disaster is considering the long-term effort of rebuilding communities and putting these communities on a path towards greater economic development and resiliency. 

Communities that have suffered the impact of a recent significant disaster take preparing for disaster recovery very seriously. These communities fully understand the financial and community redevelopment implications of not having a plan for recovery in place ahead of time. 

Developing a Plan for Disaster Recovery

Recovering from a disaster can be one of the most challenging experiences a community may face. Many communities that are impacted by a significant disaster can be permanently altered in a substantive manner. This impact can take the form of damaged infrastructure, closure of local businesses, loss of jobs, decreased tourism and significant loss of revenue communitywide. 

In Emergency Management it is often said that all disasters begin and end locally.  Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the States can provide assistance, it is the role of local governments to respond to emergencies and it is these local communities that are ultimately responsible for their own disaster recovery. 

Communities that successfully recover from disasters are the ones that take the time to plan ahead long before a natural or manmade disaster occurs. 

It is vital to remember that disaster recovery is a marathon and not a sprint. While the Disaster Response Phase may only last hours, days or weeks, disaster recovery can take years to complete. 

Having a strategic vision and comprehensive management system in place to oversee a recovery effort can often be the difference between a community rebounding in a timely manner instead of being negatively impacted for decades to come. 

Most local governments have some sort of Emergency Operations Plan in place. Few of these governments include plans and procedures designed specifically to address the requirements of a future disaster recovery effort. 

A Disaster Recovery Plan provides a community with a roadmap to successfully navigating the complex disaster recovery system that is in place in this country.  It outlines the tasks and responsibilities associated with managing the significant level of effort which is often associated with recovering from a disaster. 

Crucial Considerations When Developing a Disaster Recovery Plan: 

  • Utilize a communitywide perspective when developing your Disaster Recovery Plan to ensure your entire community’s needs are represented. 

  • Identify and assign disaster recovery responsibilities to your community’s leadership team.

  • Identify the potential vulnerabilities and risks to your community based on the hazards you realistically face. 

  • Identify resources in your community that may be of assistance after a disaster. These resources may include community organizations, private companies, neighboring local governments, and community volunteers with the skills that might be needed.

  • Establish relationships with your County and State Offices of Emergency Management as well as your FEMA Regional Office. These relationships will go a long way in helping your community successfully recover from a disaster. 

  • Having pre-negotiated contracts in place, before a disaster, for services such as emergency fuel delivery, debris removal, equipment rental, delivery of construction material, etc. can save local governments significant time and money.

  • In order to receive Federal funding, local governments must comply with local, state and federal procurement laws, regulations and policies. Local leaders must understand when goods and services may be procured on an emergency basis and when the normal bidding process must occur. 

Federal Disaster Declaration Process 

In order for local governments to successfully recover from a major disaster, its elected officials and other community leaders must understand the disaster recovery process as outlined in the Federal Government’s Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. This federal law establishes the system under which the Federal Government financially and operationally supports State, Territorial, Tribal and Local governments in a disaster. 

Once the President of the United States signs a Major Disaster Declaration, all of the communities within the designated counties are eligible to request assistance from the Federal Government. 

Prior to a disaster, local governments should contact their County and State Offices of Emergency Management to ensure that they thoroughly understand how the request process for assistance and support works within their State. 

Local governments in the designated counties do not need to have a local disaster declaration in place in order to receive federal assistance.

Federal Disaster Recovery and Hazard Mitigation Programs

Having a basic understanding of the various federal disaster assistance programs is crucial so that local governments are aware of what funding they may be eligible for. 

FEMA has two programs that are designed to assist local governments in disasters, they are the Public Assistance (PA) Program and the Hazard Mitigation Program. 

FEMA’s PA Program is intended to assist communities to recover from a disaster by providing grant funding to governments and eligible Private Non-Profit (PNP) organizations to reimburse them for disaster related damage and other costs. FEMA’s PA Program includes a cost share in which the Federal Government will reimburse eligible applicants at a rate of 75% or more for their disaster related expenses. 

FEMA provides Hazard Mitigation grant funding in an effort to limit the impact of future disasters on a community’s vital infrastructure. FEMA has two Hazard Mitigation programs that local governments are eligible for. 

404 Hazard Mitigation grant funding is available to communities, on a competitive basis, to undertake pre-disaster mitigation projects.  This grant funding is provided to the State and it is the State’s role to determine which local projects will be funded. 

406 Hazard Mitigation is post disaster mitigation funding that is directly linked to eligible PA projects. In addition to receiving PA funding, some recovery projects may be eligible to receive additional funding through the 406 Hazard Mitigation Program. The intent of this program is to harden rebuilt infrastructure to limit the impact of a future disaster.  Effective utilization of hazard mitigation funding can dramatically reduce a community’s exposure to future disasters.  FEMA’s goal is to apply 406 mitigation funding to every applicable project and local governments should be alert for these opportunities to make investments in enhancing their community’s resiliency.

In addition to FEMA’s disaster recovery programs, other federal agencies also have programs designed to assist communities such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and the Small Business Administration’s Disaster Loan Assistance program.

Disaster Recovery Documentation 

Once a disaster has occurred, local governments must document all of their expenses that are related to their emergency response and disaster recovery efforts. This documentation includes photos of any damaged facilities with GPS coordinates, work orders, invoices, payroll, and any other evidence of increased operating costs that are directly associated with a disaster. 

Local governments should establish disaster specific accounting codes to effectively segregate disaster related expenses versus normal operating costs. 

Debris removal and management can be a large component of a community’s recovery effort. Local governments should contact their State’s Environmental Conservation Department in advance of a disaster in order to fully understand how to safely and effectively remove debris and to determine where pre-designated debris disposal sites may be located within the State. The history of all disposed debris must be documented from its original location to its final disposal destination in order to receive FEMA funding. 

A lack of proper documentation risks the potential loss of federal grant funding to an otherwise eligible local government.

Long Term Disaster Recovery and Community Development 

By having a Disaster Recovery Plan in place, a community can consider ways to link its long-term development goals to potential future disaster recovery funding from the Federal Government. Once external disaster related funding sources become available, communities can seek ways to integrate this funding to meet a community’s resiliency and development goals. 

Workforce Management 

Depending on the scope and complexity of the impact of a disaster, recovery efforts can take years to complete. This prospect can be overwhelming to most local governments, especially if they are understaffed and overcommitted prior to a disaster.

FEMA recognizes that coordinating a disaster recovery can be a daunting and time-consuming effort for many communities. In order to assist communities to effectively manage their recovery, FEMA will reimburse eligible communities for 100% of their administration costs up to 5% of the value of their disaster recovery and hazard mitigation projects. Communities may utilize this administrative reimbursement funding to procure outside assistance to provide technical support, grant management and administrative support. 


Ideally, planning for a community’s recovery should begin years ahead of a potential disaster. Prepared communities are more likely to limit the impact of a future disaster while also maximizing their opportunity to receive external grant funding to rebuild and harden damaged infrastructure. 

Taking the time now to prepare for a future disaster can save lives and minimize its impact to your community.

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