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Natural disasters are on the rise, but hazard plans are inadequate

With the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and heat waves across the United States, the importance of disaster planning has never been more evident. 

Since the Federal Disaster Mitigation Act was enacted in 2000, states and local jurisdictions have been mandated to develop plans that aim to minimize the damages from such events. 

However, a recent study from the University of Kansas has shown that despite the required updates, there has been little progression in the overall quality and effectiveness of these disaster plans.

Inadequate progress

Natural disaster plans are intended to guide communities in routing development to safer regions and decrease exposure of existing infrastructure. 

For the study, the researchers analyzed two sets of plans from 84 jurisdictions – one from the late 2000s and the other from the mid-2010s. They found that these plans were of mediocre quality with negligible improvements.

“It’s like a homework assignment that could be great for helping students learn, but sadly most just aim for the minimum standard to get by,” said study lead author Professor Ward Lyles.

“Nationally, the evidence shows a tremendous increase in the amount of hazard planning since passage of the Disaster Mitigation Act 20 years ago. But we wondered if the plans get better over time, and the results unfortunately show us not really.”

Focus of the study

The study was focused on three states – Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina – based on their shared experiences with recent disasters and similar hazard exposures. 

Each state had varying policy frameworks that influenced local planning. The researchers evaluated the plans based on four critical criteria: public involvement, plan integration, land use policies, and property protection policies.

Public engagement 

The experts found that there was a marked improvement in public engagement scores, indicating a growing emphasis on community involvement in formulating and disseminating the plans. 

The integration of mitigation plans with other relevant plans like land use and transportation reflected only a slight improvement.

Disaster planning

“One of the most concerning findings is that too often planning for disasters occurs in a silo separate from other types of planning that shape our future risk,” said Professor Lyles. 

“As we see time and again, whether with hurricanes in the southeast, fires out west or in Hawaii, and even with heat waves, communities make short-term choices to promote development in places that are known to be at high risk from devastating events.”

Property protection 

Scores for land use and property protection showed no significant improvement. Professor Lyle noted that property protection is difficult to legislate as it is strongly influenced by local political will.

“It may be easy to say ‘don’t build in a flood plain,’ but the growth machine industry, which profits by developing and selling real estate, have been historically very influential on local governments,” explained Lyles. 

“It is in their interest to maintain maximum flexibility and prevent or reduce land-use controls. And, as we’ve seen tragically time and again, even the best warning systems and engineered protections like levees and dams have failure points.” 

Land use planning

The DMA requires disaster mitigation plans but enforcement is the responsibility of state and local governments, so the requirements vary.

“It’s less about knowledge and more about political will,” said Professor Lyles said. “Floods do their worst damage in low-lying areas and fires in areas prone to burning.”

“We are not compelled to allow development in high-risk areas that are cheap, scenic or otherwise desirable but ill-advised. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency – and the entire approach to disaster management in the United States – fails to require the type of land-use planning needed in the 21st century.”

Study implications 

According to the study authors, their findings provide insight into how state and federal officials can update the DMA of 2000 to meet increasingly complex demands of long-term risk reduction, especially in the face of climate change.

“With proactive, pre-event hazard planning, the idea is to talk through hard decisions when you are not in crisis, commit to those decisions and then hold firm to those decisions when a disaster occurs,” said Professor Lyles. 

“Otherwise, the urgency to get back to normal as soon as possible after a disaster means repeating the same mistakes that created the disaster conditions in the first place.”

The study is published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research.

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