Before the first shovel hits the ground, any major public investment needs solid footing. Just ask local officials in Austin, Minnesota, where the groundwork for the city’s successful Flood Mitigation Program was laid decades ago.
In this southern Minnesota community of 25,000 people, 2004 marked a turning point. That was the year a September storm caused the Cedar River to crest 10 feet above flood stage and damage costs surpassed $13 million. The floodwaters damaged more than 400 homes and affected more than 60 businesses, including a food manufacturing plant that employed nearly 2,000 workers. The same area flooded again in 2008, but this time, thanks to the city’s proactive flood mitigation efforts, no structures in that exact area were damaged again.
During the period from 1978 to 2004, the city of Austin experienced several floods, sometimes more than one in any given year, and the same areas of the community and structures were affected costing tens of millions in damage. In 1978, the city evaluated its mitigation and recovery options and implemented a strategy to decrease its future risk after two destructive flood events. In 2001, the city and Mower County jointly received a Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) grant to develop and adopt a multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan and prioritize several projects for mitigation.
As part of its mitigation strategy, the community applied for federal grant money to acquire and demolish flood-prone homes. In 2004, the city applied for a Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant to buy-out 15 properties in the Wildwood Park neighborhood which had flooded six times in previous years.
Austin’s turning point was not limited to buying-out flood prone properties. The city took multiple actions aimed at avoiding the worst outcomes of flooding. These projects began to take form as soon as the 2004 floodwaters receded. Years of planning and preparation helped the community to identify its biggest vulnerabilities, prioritize projects that addressed these risks, and line up the resources necessary to make the projects a reality— and begin breaking the cycle of damage and recovery.
Austin is one local community of many inspiring examples. As of December 29, 2017, 20,550 local governments—as well as more than 150 tribal governments, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories—have hazard mitigation plans approved (or plans that are approvable, pending adoption) by FEMA. These plans cover more than 83 percent of the United States population.
FEMA recognizes the importance of hazard mitigation plans by supporting state, local, tribal, and territorial governments in plan development /updates with training, resources, and funding through two pre-disaster, hazard mitigation grant programs — Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) and Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM). This is in addition to the post-disaster grant program mentioned above, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).
FEMA encourages mitigation planning as it demonstrates the commitment to reduce risks from natural hazards and serves as a strategic guide for decision-makers as they commit resources. In the Fiscal Year 2017 Hazard Mitigation Assistance grants cycle, 765 planning subapplications were submitted for funding. In a recent announcement by FEMA on the applications identified for further review, nearly one-third are for planning assistance funding. FEMA evaluates each application based on criteria such as cost-effectiveness, project feasibility and benefits to the community of future losses avoided after a disaster.
A hazard mitigation plan allows local leaders and staff to outline a strategy for reducing vulnerabilities for people and property from future natural disasters. It also engages the larger variety of stakeholders through an inclusive planning process. Developing a plan helps communities think about their hazard risks and what steps they can implement to lessen the impact before a disaster happens. Such mitigation planning and activities reduce the physical, financial, and emotional toll that a disaster can take on residents and businesses in a community.
A mitigation plan is the first step in a community’s effort to reduce disaster risk, but a plan is only as good as its implementation. For example, in 2007, Austin implemented a 20-year, 0.5-cent local sales tax to help fund more flood mitigation projects. The city leveraged this money to meet the cost-share requirement for state and federal grants to pay for $24 million worth of projects.
To date, 11 of the 12 priority mitigation actions are complete in Austin, including a $5 million temporary 1,100 foot floodwall that can be assembled in 90 minutes along the city’s Main Street. The city also built levees, raised roads, acquired properties, and extensively upgraded storm sewers and pumping stations to prevent losses to businesses and homes after a flood. Studies have shown that Austin’s efforts created a 165 percent return on investment.
To ensure communities continue to evaluate their changing risk and push their mitigation efforts forward, a mitigation plan must be updated every five years. FEMA continues to support and help local communities develop the a holistic plan for their local needs to build a more resilient nation. More information on the benefits of mitigation planning, resources available, and best practice examples are available at https://www.fema.gov/hazard-mitigation-planning.
- Community Uses Local Sales Tax to Fund Flood Mitigation: floodeconomics.com/communities/austin-mn/
- Austin: North Main Floodwall Installation video April 2016: www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXyC81uH9a4
- Austin Pre-Disaster Mitigation Saves Homes: www.hsdl.org/?view&did=13152
- City of Austin, Minnesota, Flood Mitigation Program: www.ci.austin.mn.us/public-works/flood-mitigation-program
- National Map of Approved Mitigation Plans: fema.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=ec2fb023df744cf480da89539338c386
- FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program: www.fema.gov//hazard-mitigation-grant-program
- FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance: www.fema.gov/flood-mitigation-assistance-grant-program
- Pre-Disaster Mitigation: www.fema.gov/pre-disaster-mitigation-grant-program
- FEMA Mitigation planning: www.fema.gov/hazard-mitigation-planning