The Case for Planning

The Case for Planning

Historic and cultural resources found throughout the United States contribute immeasurably to our sense of place, quality of life, and national and local character.  These resources are also critical features of our economy and environment, and represent a significant investment of time, money, labor, thought, energy, and natural resources.  While we are fortunate to have developed tools to combat traditional preservation threats to historic resources (development pressure, changing taste, evolving needs), we currently possess a more limited set of tools to limit or prevent the considerable impacts of disaster and climate impacts. Planning and awareness is a significant component.  Physical and institutional frameworks allow immediate, decisive, and coordinated action toward recovery.  This document seeks to make the case to cities, organizations, and homeowners that preservation-integrated disaster plans are indispensable for the survival of these resources, and the communities, at-large.

Critical Resources

Why Cities Need to Plan

In its seminal manual, Disaster Planning for Florida's Historic Resources, the Florida Department of Resources puts it simply: "Planning for the protection of historic resources prior to a disaster is smart public policy."  Through a variety of tourist, development and other activities, historic resources accrue billions of dollars of benefit to our national economy every year.  When a lack of preparedness leads to inadvertent loss of or damage to these resources—either through lack of weather-readiness, proliferation of fire hazards, structural instability, delayed response, hasty decision-making by local officials, etc.—this is a direct threat to that economic activity.      

In addition to the economic threat, a lack of preparation can lead to a confused and disjointed response.  Damage must be widely and accurately assessed; debris, rubble and water must be managed and disposed; some processes may need to be expedited.  Historic resources are at a particular risk during this period since further damage can occur during cleanup, so it is critical to have the input of knowledgeable professionals.  Having plans in place allows these issues to be addressed efficiently without having to re-invent the wheel under increased pressure and often diminished capacity.  When preservation is integrated into the framework of local emergency response, the buildings have a better chance of survival.

Beyond the mechanics of response, having an articulate preservation-integrated disaster plan in place can vastly improve the extent to which federal programs and dollars may be available to assist.  Properties that are listed on (or are eligible for) the National Register of Historic Places—including contributing properties within National Register Historic Districts—are eligible for Federal and State rehabilitation tax credits, Historic Preservation Fund Grants-in-Aid (NPS), and are entitled to special consideration under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).  Additionally, these National Register-listed properties must be taken under consideration by FEMA during any post-disaster activities that would potentially adversely impact them.  Executing a pre-disaster survey of historic resources—a critical element of developing a disaster plan—is a key step in creating the National Register districts that can impart these financial and protective benefits.

Historic preservation also has the ability to contribute to recovery in intangible ways:  local landmarks, buildings and neighborhoods form the basis of a sense of place.  These resources, if damaged, can contribute to a sense of healing and progress when they are repaired—the restoration of buildings aids the restoration of normalcy.  Moreover, the loss of meaningful buildings and places can heighten the sense of dispossession that naturally comes with disasters; preventing this loss can lessen the emotional impact of disaster.  When the economic and emotional value of preservation is weighed, the benefits gained are almost certainly worth the cost to create them. 

Given the availability of funds to develop disaster plans, as well as the abundance of free planning information online and through statewide and local preservation groups, it makes very little sense not to develop a preservation-integrated disaster preparedness plan.  FEMA's Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program provides funds to states, territories, tribal governments, communities, and universities for hazard mitigation planning and the implementation of mitigation projects prior to a disaster event.  Funding these plans and projects reduces overall risks to the population and structures, while also reducing reliance on funding from actual disaster declarations.

Why Homeowners Need to Plan

Homeowners face some of the most immediate and tangible impacts of disasters:  physical displacement, loss of and damage to property, financial uncertainty, and stress.  Fortunately, homeowners also have many opportunities to effectively reduce the risk of these impacts through targeted planning efforts.  There is abundant free information available online to help homeowners reduce the risk of fire, minimize the impacts of flooding (both physical and financial), and strengthen a home's resistance to extreme wind, rain and other climactic forces. 

Resources for Homeowners.

Why Preservation Organizations Need to Plan

Statewide and local preservation organizations, Main Streets, and other preservation-related groups play an important role in the places where they operate:  they help facilitate the daily business of preservation, they assist state and local preservation and planning agencies, they provide technical assistance to the owners and stewards of resources, and they serve as a face for preservation.  Critically, these organizations also often know the "lay of the land" in a particular place as well as or better than anybody else, and can react quickly and appropriately in a time of need.  In the event of a disaster these organizations have the opportunity to provide immense support to both the homeowners and agencies with whom they already interact.  While the roles of state and local government agencies are sometimes prescribed in times of disasters, these preservation organizations have the ability to identify and fill those needs that are highly important but not being met by another actor due to limitations of capacity, mandate, or something as simple as distance.

Because of the unique and flexible role these organizations play, they—and the parties they serve—stand to benefit substantially from a disaster preparedness plan.  Because the role of these organizations is different, so might a disaster plan they create be different, addressing such questions as:

  • What preservation needs are or are not being met by local, state, and federal actors?  What have been or are likely to be the limitations of those actors?
  • What organizational strengths can we bring to planning and response efforts?  How can we partner with other organizations (i.e. fire departments or assessment teams) to offer guidance and improve service?
  • What resources can we offer to homeowners, building owners, property stewards, neighborhoods, and the larger community?
  • Can we help coordinate a volunteer force?