Integration of Preservation into Disaster Planning at the Local Level

Natural disasters are a part of a cycle between the environment, the community, and the built environment.[1]  This dynamic, during the best of times, is strained by developmental pressures, political issues, private property rights, et cetera.  During a natural disaster this cycle is even more taxed with threat to human life.  The first effort during a disaster is, as it should be, human aid. The single most important issue in emergency response is to rescue and save lives. Though, the built environment cannot be ignored.

As a preservationist, it is easy to see a clear connection in emergency planning and saving historic buildings. Not only are they a physical part of the built environment they are a connection to the past, a tangible piece of the community.  They [historic places] can act as a rallying point for a group of people who feel out of control and become a symbol of recovery and resilience. Unfortunately, historic preservation can be viewed as a hindrance; “…after a disaster these resources‘ special status as designated landmarks may complicate recovery efforts.”[2]

This article will give a brief overview of emergency management principles.  It will also offer recommendations to improve preservation’s inclusion in these efforts.  This article will focus on the local level of participation.  This level is the first to respond to a natural disaster and has the closest relationship to a community’s historic resources.

Emergency Management

Graphic from Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, Planning Advisory Service Report by Federal Emergency Management Agency.

When a disaster strikes the first to respond is the local government. If their resources are overwhelmed, they can petition the state for help. If the state resources are exhausted they can request help from the federal government.  The Phases of Emergency Management: The Disaster Life Cycle graphic[3] is a great overview of the way emergency planning works.  Mitigation is the overarching principal; preventing a disaster or lessening the effects of a disaster before any threat is realized.  Preparedness is readiness for an inevitable or probable disaster event.  Response is the immediate reaction to the disaster, and can last anywhere from a few hours to days or weeks.  Recovery is when the community starts to focus on long term needs and issues.

There are several mitigation tools for local jurisdictions (including but not limited to):

  • hazards mapping
  • land use planning: “…including, acquisitions, easements, storm water management, annexation, environmental review, and flood plain management plans.”[4]
  • financial incentives and disincentives (taxing)
  • design and construction applications (building codes)
  • structural controls (like dams or levees)

Preparedness has a much more broad scope.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created a graphic to explain preparedness.[5]  While many mitigation measures must be handled within government any individual, entity, or group can arrange preparedness measures.  The main goal of preparedness is to create an emergency plan of action.

Graphic by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Methods for response differ based on the type of hazard faced and the size affected area.  Though the methods differ typically the same people are involved: local fire and police officers, possibly an emergency manager, the city manager or mayor, city council, citizen volunteers, and local aid organizations.  Recovery efforts involve the people mentioned above as well as local planners and building code officials.  Building code officials play a critical role in recovery, they determine habitability and issue building permits in the aftermath of disaster.

The Role of Preservation

Many historic cities and towns were built along waterways, fault lines, and coasts.  These cities were established long before the advances in science told us how dangerous these areas could be.  Historic and cultural resources could also be at risk for mechanical or manmade hazards due to their symbolic and cultural value.  Our resources are always at risk so it is important that preservation be integrated into the varying phases of emergency management.  Since historic preservation is not always mandated at the local level, it often starts as a grassroots effort.  This section breaks down preservation integration recommendations by role at the local level.  Following this section is a chart with varied resources for helping to achieve these recommendations.

Private citizen/Stewards of Historic Sites

  • Educate yourself on the hazards in your area
  • Prepare your own disaster plan
  • Build relationships with building engineers, carpenters, and repairmen prior to disaster (put contact info directly in disaster plan)
  • Learn how to properly safeguard and repair your historic resource
  • Be an advocate for historic preservation

Local Preservation Groups/Historic Preservation Commissions

  • Educate yourself on the hazards in your area
  • Conduct a survey of historic resources, map electronically
  • Prepare disaster plan for historic resources
  • Educate local building inspectors on proper treatment of historic resources
  • Provide technical assistance to local officials/citizens in the recovery process
  • Learn the emergency management processes for your area, remain in contact with local emergency management officials

Local Planners/Emergency Planner

  • Create comprehensive plans including emergency management protocol and historic preservation
  • Keep emergency management and preservation at the forefront when making land use decisions

Building Code Officials

  • Be aware of local historic resources
  • Know technical structural issues involving historic resources

Mayor/City Manager

  • Be aware of historic resources in your jurisdiction
  • Make connections with local preservation groups and your Historic Preservation Commissions, include them in recovery plans

Historic preservation funding and grants can help fill in the gaps left by the traditional aid systems during recovery.  Historic preservation can act as catalyst for renewed growth in the aftermath of a disaster.  Historic preservation can rally a community and bring hope.  It is up to preservationists and those interested in historic resources to make sure preservation is not seen as a hindrance during times of a natural disaster. The most important conclusion that can be drawn from this article is that historic preservation can help a devastated community. By incorporating preservation into disaster recovery we can rebuild the intangible sense of community that a historic resource represents.

Additional Resources

Topic Resources
Hazards Mapping or
Historic Site Emergency Preparedness Plan National Trust for Historic Preservation: Or this book: Safeguarding your historic site: basic preparedness and recovery measures for natural disasters. Developed through the experiences of the historic districts of Nantucket, Massachusetts and Montpelier, Vermon.
Personal Emergency Preparedness Plan
Qualified engineers, carpenters, and repairmen Your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) should keep a list of qualified personnel find you SHPO’s information here: Or Preservation Trades Network: Or the Association for Preservation Technology International:
Proper safeguards and repairs Search through National Trust for Historic Preservation publication, and National Park Service Publications
Historic Resources Surveys Check with your SHPO about their GIS efforts in your area:

[1] Dennis Mileti, Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States (Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 1999), 3.

[2] Federal Emergency Management Agency, Integrating Historic Property and cultural Resource Considerations Into Hazard Mitigation Planning: A State and Local How-To Guide, FEMA 386-6.

[3] Jim Schwab, Kenneth C. Topping, Charles D. Eadie, Robert E. Deyle, and Richard A. Smith, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, Planning Advisory Service Report Number 483/484, Washington, D.C.: American Planning Association, 1998: 32

[4] George D. Haddow, Jane A. Bullock, and Damon P. Coppola; Introduction to Emergency Management: Third Edition; Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2008: 78.

[5] Federal Emergency Management Agency, ―National Response Framework,‖ [accessed February 25, 2011]: 27.

About the author: Ashley Cissel

Ashley Cissel is a native Atlantan and a graduate of the University of Georgia Master of Historic Preservation program. She is currently working at the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC). Most notably at ARC, she has created and maintains a comprehensive GIS database of historic and cultural resources for the 20-county Metro Atlanta region for use in long-range transportation and land use planning projects. In her spare time she volunteers for the Historic District Development Corporation, working to secure funding for the distressed Atlanta Life Insurance building on Auburn Avenue.

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