Economic Developers Need to be Part of Disaster Response Planning

Emergency management is often seen as a function of the local police and fire departments, and not a subject with which economic developers need to be concerned. If there is a disaster, the thinking goes, police and fire departments, and perhaps the national guard will respond to protect lives and property. But there is more to disaster response than the immediate need to ensure public safety. A community needs to be prepared to deal with the aftermath. Imagine that nearly every business in your downtown is flooded, losing their inventory and sustaining damage to their buildings. Or perhaps a fire ravages the forests surrounding the community, which were the basis for its tourism or logging industries. Consider what might result from a tornado leveling the city’s business park. Yes, it is important to plan for the initial response, but it is just as critical to have a plan in place to immediately begin the recovery. Is your community ready to assist its industries, the shops on Main Street, and home-based businesses in the days and months after a disaster?

Ever since Hurricane Katrina a significant part of our business has been helping disaster-impacted communities to chart a path to recovery. It seems that disasters are only growing more common. Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and floods have lately become a staple of the evening news. We have a few observations from working in these places.

  • Very few communities have anticipated the potential for disasters or have any sort of recovery plan in place.
  • Most businesses do not have a continuity plan in the event of a catastrophe. In fact, few even have adequate insurance to cover their losses, or regularly back up critical business information.
  • The threat is not always apparent. Most of the businesses impacted by flooding in the Great Plains and New England states in 2011 were located outside of the 100-year floodplain and thought they were safe. And who could have anticipated a major oil spill closing beaches and wrecking the Gulf Coast tourist economy?
  • While impacted homeowners may receive some grant assistance, the best a business may hope for is a loan. Many business owners will not find that an attractive, or even a feasible solution for their loss. Many businesses will simply not return.
  • Just as businesses may not return, the customers may also move on to other locations. These customers may be residents of a trade area or they may be clients who find other suppliers of goods or services while a disaster-impacted business may not be able to serve them. Loss of their customers may be another factor in whether a business returns.
  • People moving out of the area, either temporarily or permanently, are also the workforce for many local businesses. It is a problem overall, but particularly if some of those moving out are critical employees with skills or knowledge that may be hard to replace.
  • Key businesses will look elsewhere for opportunities to reopen more quickly. Businesses with multiple facilities may transfer work, while local businesses may find new locations in nearby communities.
  • Just cleaning up from a disaster can take days, weeks, or even months. Traffic patterns change due to road closures. Rail or air service, municipal water and sanitary services, telecommunications, electrical power and natural gas services may be disrupted for an extended period, during which the business may not be able to operate. In some cases uncertainty about whether rebuilding is possible (such as when a property may be acquired for mitigation) can hold up reconstruction for years.
  • Many common business assistance resources may also be lost in the disaster, such as municipal offices, the chamber of commerce, the small business development center, and others.
  • Municipal resources will be stretched thin. Staff will have enormous workloads and may have to cope with their own disaster losses. Municipal budgets will be impacted by the loss of fees, sales taxes, and property taxes, while also needing to fund response and repair costs.

If the consequences of a disaster can quickly rise to this magnitude, it should be apparent that the time to start thinking of how to react is before the event. Few places have the staff, resources, or time to adequately respond once the event has already taken place.

It can take years to recover from a disaster, and some communities never do return to the prosperity they once enjoyed. As part of the emergency management team, economic developers can help to anticipate potential impacts to businesses and the economy, and ensure that there is a plan in place to immediately begin a recovery. Economic developers should be educating their businesses on the importance of obtaining insurance and backing up critical data. They can provide assistance in continuity planning. During and immediately after an event they can assist with salvage and clean-up, and even establishing work centers and marketplaces where impacted businesses can set up temporary operations. Over the long term they can coordinate continued business planning, loan programs, promotions, and other activities to support business recovery.

Perhaps a last lesson is to continuously document business conditions in the community. Data from before the flood can be used to establish a baseline. Post-disaster data will show the degree to which the economy was impacted and can be essential to seeking grant support from state, federal, and other sources. Have in place an effective strategy to maintain contact with your businesses, as many will no longer have access to a physical address. Survey businesses at frequent intervals to monitor their intentions for reconstruction, their needs for recovery, or to determine how many will not return.

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