Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Making the Case

Much of the material I’ve included on this page deals with the “what’s” and “how’s” of hazard mitigation.  It seems I’ve often ignored the “why’s,” assuming they were obvious. 

As you know from my profile, I work for the University System of Maryland.  In a recent conversation with someone from one of our constituent universities, he posed a question; the answer to which seems, on its surface, rather obvious.  The question was simple.  But as I tried to answer it, I found myself struggling to “make the case” in a way that sounded truly convincing.  So I thought I’d take some time to address it here in the hope I’d have a much stronger response ready the next time.  Here was his question: 

             “Why is hazard mitigation planning important?”

Our Board of Regents policy requires each campus to prepare and regularly update a facilities master plan (FMP).  During the last few FMP cycles, the Board has recommended institutions address within their plans two critical issues:  (1) environmental sustainability; and (2) community/stakeholder participation in the process.  All FMP’s now incorporate these elements.

All institutions signed the (former) President’s Climate Commitment and are pursuing goals related to climate (e.g., carbon) mitigation and sustainability.  Most institutions are also addressing adaptation and resiliency, along with their mitigation efforts.   We continue to stress the importance of adaptation and the fact that much of what is done for the sake of mitigating climate change will improve resilience as well. The State has also enhanced its focus on adaptation, and we’re working to comply with policies like those associated with Maryland’s Coast Smart legislation.

A decade or so ago, our Board also asked every institution to complete an emergency preparedness plan.  Again, this was completed quickly and effectively, and all institutions now have robust emergency preparedness and continuous operations programs in place. 

On the continuum of efforts that help inform our facilities master plans, the “missing link,” if you will, is Hazard Mitigation planning, intended to prevent or reduce the impact from a wide range of climatic, geologic or man-made disasters/events.  As you know, these would include campus policies (or guidelines) for land use, building placement, construction standards, barriers and drainage, communications systems, etc.

So far, only two institutions have completed a formal Hazard Mitigation Plan.  Given the current interest at the Board level with risk assessment and mitigation, I’d like to encourage all institutions to complete a hazard mitigation exercise; with the goal of ensuring that the next round of facilities master plans, as well as the resulting capital program, are informed by, and integrated with, detailed hazard data and mitigation policies.


The FEMA document titled Building a Disaster-Resistant University cites deaths, injuries and serious damage to institutions across the country during and following natural disasters in recent decades.  At universities here in Maryland, we’ve had severe flooding that damaged and disabled buildings, tornadoes that took lives, and winter storms that shut down campus operations for as much as a week at a time.  In its guide for universities (referenced above), FEMA says “these losses could have been substantially reduced or eliminated through comprehensive pre-disaster planning and mitigation actions.”  The report continues:

Natural and man-made disasters represent a wide array of threats to the instructional, research, and public service missions of higher education institutions...  Disaster-related losses in the United States continue to rise. At all levels, organizations and governments are adjusting their behavior and policies to reflect the importance of reducing damage caused by extreme events. Hazard mitigation is accepted as good practice and many government jurisdictions now require it. Higher education institutions have an interest on many levels to become more disaster-resistant.

Administrators, faculty, and staff are realizing that improving their campus’ resistance to disaster will not only protect their own lives and those of their students, it will also safeguard the campus’ instruction, research, and public service. Higher education institutions are themselves communities in many ways, and they can draw on important lessons from the efforts of counties and municipalities to reduce disaster risks...

Higher education institutions are engaged in and skilled at planning exercises for a wide range of issues; consequently, the addition or improvement of campus-based hazard mitigation planning will yield substantial benefits. Moreover, steps taken to become more disaster-resistant can complement the long-term sustainability of the campus and improve the overall quality of life.

According to FEMA, hazard mitigation will “reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters. It is most effective when implemented under a comprehensive, long-term mitigation plan… to identify risks and vulnerabilities associated with natural disasters, and develop long-term strategies for protecting people and property from future hazard events.  Mitigation plans are key to breaking the cycle of disaster damage, reconstruction, and repeated damage.”

Developing hazard mitigation plans enables [institutions] to: 

·       Increase education and awareness around threats, hazards, and vulnerabilities; 
·       Build partnerships for risk reduction involving [stakeholders on and off campus]; 
·       Identify long-term, broadly-supported strategies for risk reduction; 
·       Align risk reduction with other [institutional] objectives; 
·       Identify implementation approaches that focus resources on the greatest risks and vulnerabilities; and 
·       Communicate priorities to potential sources of funding.

From a truly pragmatic perspective, having a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan is a prerequisite for receiving certain types of non-emergency disaster assistance, including funding for mitigation projects.  That alone would be reason enough. 

But in the end, the ultimate “why” behind hazard mitigation is that it guides and “enables action to reduce loss of life and property.” If we have to accept disasters as inevitable, we should never accept their impacts in the same way.  We can and should do all possible to lessen their impact and protect the lives and physical assets with which we've been entrusted.  

That's why.

Case made.

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