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Managing Disasters at the County Level: A Focus on Flooding

March 1, 2017

Disasters – whether naturally occurring or man-made,1 foreseeable or unforeseeable – can have a profound impact on counties across the United States. In order to remain healthy, vibrant, safe and economically competitive, America’s counties must be able to anticipate and adapt to a myriad of changing physical, environmental, social and economic conditions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) closely tracks disaster events across the U.S. that result in losses exceeding $1 billion. In 2016, there were 15 such events – including 4 floods, 8 severe storms, and a tropical cyclone – resulting in the deaths of 138 people. 2 NOAA’s data suggests that such severe weather events have also become more frequent: an average of 5.5 disasters occurred annually from 1980-2016, whereas the frequency has almost doubled to 10.6 events annually when looking at 2012-2016 years alone. Given the increasing regularity and costs of disasters, it has never been more important for counties to take proper steps to protect their people and property from all potential hazards.

Last year, the federal government declared major disasters in 878 counties;3 the resulting damage of which totaled an estimated $46 billion.4 This is significant as county governments support the operation of nearly 1,000 hospitals and the construction and maintenance of 45 percent of public roads and 40 percent of bridges throughout the United States. Each year counties annually spend almost $83 billion on community health and hospitals, $22 billion on sewage and solid waste management and $122 billion on building public infrastructure and maintaining and operating public works. In the case of a disaster, county services and infrastructure investments may be interrupted or put at risk, costing the county time and money it might not have to spare. In order to protect these investments, counties must develop preventative plans to mitigate risk and determine how to respond if and when a disaster unfolds.

A number of research organizations have outlined practical approaches that counties can utilize to increase their resilience and decrease the impact and cost of disasters. While each of these processes can vary to a certain degree, they all emphasize the need for stakeholder engagement and the development of a comprehensive risk assessment. A robust risk assessment identifies and assesses local infrastructure and the built environment, shocks and stresses, laws and regulations and social service needs within the community. This report focuses on emergency management for flooding, the most common natural hazard. However, the majority of principles highlighted here can be applied to virtually any emergency or disaster situation. County best practices from across the nation are used to underscore and exemplify each resilience strategy. County leaders can use this report to better understand the emergency management cycle and the breadth of resilience strategies available as they work to make their counties more resilient, healthy and safe for residents.

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811 W. John Street, Yorkville, IL 60560   •   630-553-9100