Preparing for the Worst Disaster planning for preservation

In any given season, historic resources may be struck by disasters resulting from ice storms, thunderstorms, tornados, or flooding, just to name a few potential hazards. When these disasters strikes, the impacts can be far reaching and the devastation may be felt for years. When disasters strike, it can be the case that you are faced with more than one type of harm. Consider, for example, the impact of a hurricane. Near the coast, threats include tidal forces, flooding, and high winds. Farther inland, preparation must address the possibility of tornadoes that result from a hurricane’s high winds. Low-lying areas, even those away from the coast, are at risk for flooding.

Many local, state, and federal building codes and regulations impact construction projects, but allowances are often made for historic buildings that exempt them from meeting current codes. Planning efforts can decrease the severity of damage and reduce recovery time. Unfortunately, evidence of the incorporation of historic resources into disaster planning indicates that attention to these resources is minimal at best. Nonetheless, only half the states, in their planning enabling statutes, mention natural hazards at all as a concern that should or may be addressed in comprehensive plans.

Please read: Appler, D. and Rumbach, A. (2016) “Building Resilience through Historic Preservation,” Journal of the American Planning Association, 82(2).

Historic buildings have stood the test of time, offering lessons in how a thoughtful built environment can protect us from natural threats. Many historic homes have been constructed in a manner that is already more resilient to these events, having been designed and built for their environment. For example, buildings in flood prone areas were often raised off the ground to avoid damage from high water. Some were oriented facing the water to allow for air movement under the house to help cool and dry them in warmer months. Shutters offered both shade and protection during storms. Design elements like these, which often served multiple purposes, may have been lost or forgotten in recent planning and design efforts. People also historically built their homes on the highest ground as the best defense against flooding; however, as cities and towns grow and spread out, undesirable land often became the only affordable option available. As a result, some of the hardest-hit areas are often poorer communities.

These structures from another era, although engineered to earlier standards that may be helpful to their resilience in some ways, in others age can be problematic. For example, they may no longer meet the standards of what is seismically safe or may not be capable of standing up to other natural hazards like wind and flood damage. This may require reconciling preservation with public safety to reconsider modern engineering standards.

Preservation professionals need to preemptively address these concerns as it can be too late after a storm has passed. While no disaster prevention plan is foolproof, properly addressing these matters in a manner that addresses historic resources can help to reduce damage, lower the cost of recovery, and allow people to return to an area sooner after a disaster has occurred. There must be some consideration of local building codes, aesthetic, cost, and accessibility issues when making decisions for protecting historic homes. Determining which threats buildings or districts may face will aid in deciding which recommendations are applicable and may be necessary to develop a prioritized plan to protect these resources.

Management and Mitigation

Land use planning, by law, is intended to advance legitimate state purposes relating to public health, safety, and welfare. Part of this requires establishing policy objectives and programs that support the creation of disaster mitigation efforts and post-disaster recovery and reconstruction plans to advance public safety and economic recovery. Planners take great care to separate residential housing from noxious industrial fumes and vibrations, or to establish minimum distances of churches and schools from certain businesses. It make no less sense to keep development safe from floods and landslides. Allowing unwise and inadequately protected development in locations at risk from serious dangers from natural hazards would be a failure of planners to serve one of their most vital public functions.

Preparation for the plan requires that you (1) identify and map the community’s natural hazards; and (2) document and quantify what’s at risk.

A good first step is anticipating the consequences of a disaster to facilitate identifying the strategies and resources needed for later. Identifying the potential for hazards helps to focus on the kinds of impact assessment needed to develop contingency plans to facilitate post-disaster recovery. Inventories can be taken to assess the for potential structural damage or economic impact. Different impacts on different communities should be considered. For example, low-income communities may suffer disproportionate damage as a result of the relative age of the housing stock and residents' financial capacity to take mitigation measures. A pre-disaster strategy helps identify vulnerable buildings and infrastructure, then program needed improvements into budget priorities and work with private property owners to set programs in motion to prevent future harm. Identifying historic properties in hazard-prone areas and proposing mitigation techniques should include Register listed and Register eligible properties.

Immediately after a disaster occurs, the potential for chaos and confusion is substantial. There are numerous people and organizations that are serving at cross-purposes and decisions must be made quickly before new problems arise that urgently demand resolution. As a result, it is crucial that a disaster recovery plan provides guidance and a framework for decision-makers. Such guidance must provide decision makers with policy objectives their decisions must aim to achieve to help minimize unintended consequences and to keep all players working toward the same goals. Recovery and reconstruction plans can highlight essential objectives like preservation.

Preservation and Disaster Mitigation Strategies

Note that each state has a state-level mitigation plan that all local planners in that state can request from their state emergency management office. Remember, however, not all of these address historic preservation. Please read the following mitigation strategies to get an idea of what state and local governments consider to be important elements:

Linking with Other Plans. Disasters disrupt multiple aspects of normal community activity; few aspects of a city’s operations are unaffected. Disaster recovery plans can be prepared as a stand-alone document, but ideally there should be linkages with other comprehensive plan elements and other elements of a city’s plans including neighborhood plans, area and corridor plans, downtown and business district plans to answer questions as to how activity, infrastructure, and architecture will be restored in the aftermath of a disaster,

Linking with Land-Use Regulations. Post-disaster you may also be faced with dealing with damaged historic properties. Some places already have regulations in place that address the condemnation process for these resources in the event that they need to be demolished, providing procedures, timeframes, necessary parties to the demolition determination, notification procedures, and the disposition of the salvaged materials.

Take a few moments to watch this HUD video on disaster resilience.

Disaster Recovery Assistance

Plans for hazard mitigation of historic properties in a post-disaster plan should take account of opportunities for funding assistance. In the event that a disaster occurs resulting in damages to historic resources, recovery assistance programs are available. These programs provide economic and technical assistance for recovery through state and federal funding and professional guidance for preservation, mitigation, and restoration efforts. There are FEMA Federal Disaster Recovery Programs that provide individual assistance and public assistance grant programs, the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program, and many states have their own historic preservation grant programs that offer small matching grants or special category grants.

Federal Disaster Recovery Programs have the advantage of a generally faster funding process, the possible inclusion of reimbursements for completed disaster work, and potential coverage of the costs of hazard mitigation. These programs also provide more immediate assistance with scope of work formulations, cost estimating, and assistance with environmental/historic compliance issues. Further, there are more expenses that are eligible for coverage. There are also, however, disadvantages. Under these programs, eligible work is limited to disaster-related recovery and hazard mitigation. There is also a Section 106 Review requirement. Federal programs can have shorter completion time requirements, may require reductions in funding to respond to insurance claims proceeds, and mandate insurance coverage of repaired elements.

Individuals and households are eligible for funding under the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) for homes damaged by a major disaster. restoration to pre-disaster condition can be funded up to $200,000 by a home disaster loan from the Small Business Administration with an additional 20% for hazard mitigation. Other Needs Assistance (ONA) provides assistance for temporary housing, essential household items, utilities, residential infrastructure and debris removal. Individual Assistance Programs are also available for businesses and not-for profits under the Small Business Administration (SBA), which provides low-interest loans. There is also a federal Public Assistance Grant Program Available to state, local and tribal publicly owned facilities and private not- for-profit critical facilities and non-critical community service facilities. Under this program applicants are responsible for obtaining all required Environmental and Historic Preservation (EHP) permits from the appropriate agencies before proceeding with Emergency Work

Please look at the ACHP's information on Federal Financial Assistance for Historic Preservation Projects—Disaster Response.

Tax credits may also be used for dealing with preservation efforts post-disaster. The 10% tax credit can be applied for by building owner for qualified expenses relating to the rehabilitation of non-historic buildings placed in service before 1936 that will be rehabilitated for non-residential uses. A 20% tax credit is available for qualified expenses related to the Certified Rehabilitation of an income producing Certified Historic building. The advantage here is that the funds don't have to be used only towards disaster recovery efforts like the FEMA funds above. Also, the program is overseen by the Division of Historical Resources (DHR) and the National Park Service (NPS). There are, however, multiple applications and levels of review and approval required, there are restrictive covenants employed, reimbursements cannot be made for completed work, and the owner must maintain ownership of the property for 5 years.

State historic preservation grants are also available to provide limited funding up front for emergency protective measures, for non-disaster related work, including additions, new construction, and rehabilitation for adaptive re-use. These often come in the form of small matching grants and special category grants.

Global Examples of Resilience

Addressing resilience in the context of the preservation of historic resources is something that is being addressed globally. There is no one-size fits all response to dealing with disasters, but you will find that the models available to consider from those cities and regions already addressing these issues are incredibly helpful in shaping your thinking and in raising questions about what needs to be done to brace for the worst. To that end, please read the UNESCO report on Heritage and Resilience: Issues and Opportunities for Reducing Disaster Risks.

You will also find an extremely helpful, comprehensive list of resources on the NATHPO website here.

In terms of protecting historic resources through preservation plans and even though design guidelines, think of potential goals, strategy, priorities, and criteria that would be appropriate for inclusion.


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