Holistic perspective informs mitigation strategies beyond physical infrastructure

With climate change concerns and the impact of extreme weather conditions on communities, it is important that Indiana residents know that work is constantly ongoing throughout the state to minimize future damage and loss. The Polis Center at IUPUI—a leader in the disaster resiliency industry nationally—is involved in this effort in a major way, working closely with many Indiana counties, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security (IDHS), the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The Polis Center supports emergency preparedness, response, and recovery from disasters for greater responsiveness to climate change and its social, health, and economic repercussions. To that end, preparing Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plans (MHMP) is an important specialty of the Center and it develops MHMPs for most counties in Indiana and the State of Indiana overall. The work is critical as identifying a community’s weaknesses, strengths, and needs has the potential to significantly decrease destruction or losses from natural disasters.

Floods, tornadoes, severe storms, and earthquakes are among the natural hazard risks in Indiana. Since 2000, FEMA has declared 20 major disasters for the State of Indiana, which includes the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, Indiana has received $233,102.631.76 in individual and household program totals and $321,200,239.51 in public assistance grants.

Flooding has the highest level of risk and impact in Indiana. In the past two decades, Indiana has received 14 federal disaster declarations related to flooding, which affected 87 of its 92 counties. The most recent disaster was declared on May 4, 2018, after melting snow and heavy rain caused extensive floods in northwestern Indiana, and along the Ohio River in southern Indiana after a severe winter storm resulted in the second highest calendar day snowfall for Indianapolis. Some areas had four to seven inches of precipitation above normal during that period. It was the wettest February on record in Evansville.

Climate change is driving more extreme natural disasters around Indiana, particularly through severe storms and flooding. The damage can be enormous and extremely expensive. That’s why it is important for communities to learn about their risks and work toward greater resiliency in the face of natural disasters.

Polis calculates that a 100-year flood could damage 57,000 buildings in the state. Damages to these buildings could exceed $5 billion statewide. The Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment estimates that from 1895 to 2016, the state has seen an increase in its annual average precipitation from 3.3″ in the northeast portion of the state to almost 7″ in the southern portion of the state. Continued increases in rainfall will lead to additional flooding issues in the future.

Experts in preparing MHMP and flood plans, the Polis Center reinforces and contributes to efforts to effectively resolve environmental resiliency issues, steward resources, and improve a community’s quality of life. It is unique in several ways when it comes to preparing MHMPs. The synergy of three core areas of The Polis Center (community informatics, community health informatics, and geoinformatics) differentiate it. It looks beyond the physical infrastructure elements of mitigation by bearing in mind a region’s vulnerable populations, social weaknesses and services, social determinants of health, and more when preparing a community’s MHMP. Because Polis is affiliated with a university, it has access to a wealth of academic experts and researchers to consult on behalf of client communities as it creates practical solutions. The university connection also underscores integrity, current research, and impartiality.

Polis is one of two FEMA Cooperating Technical Partners (CTP) in the State of Indiana (IDNR is the other). This is an important distinction because CTP projects support high quality flood risk assessment and protection. The partnership allows close work with local, state, and federal policymakers, applying best practices to the mitigation of the social and economic impacts of flood, earthquakes, and other natural disaster hazards. It provides greater awareness of government grant opportunities. By pooling resources, CTPs can stretch public funds further while enabling more efficient floodplain management. It also supports customized approaches to flood hazard identification where unique conditions exist.

What exactly does a MHMP do for a community? Generally, a MHMP outlines the natural hazard risks faced by the region’s citizens, buildings and infrastructure, and its economy, as well as opportunities for making communities more resilient to those risks. Strategies to help mitigate the risks and build resiliency include acquisition and demolition of flood prone properties; construction of residential and community safe rooms to protect citizens during severe weather; collaboration between multiple federal, state, and local agencies and other partners to develop solutions to natural hazard issues; and planning efforts to assess natural hazard risks, identify mitigation opportunities, and help improve the resiliency of communities. Updating a county’s MHMP typically requires between six and 12 months of meetings, planning, and analysis with county and community officials. Renewal of the plan every five years is required by FEMA for a jurisdiction to qualify for mitigation-based grants. This policy encourages awareness of continually changing conditions and mitigation strategies.

Washington County, which experiences frequent strong tornadoes, is a good example of a success story in county mitigation planning with The Polis Center’s expertise. Thanks to having a FEMA-approved MHMP, Washington County built safe spaces for school children and staff to shelter during violent weather. The county took advantage of the IDHS Community Safe Room Program which leverages FEMA’s mitigation grants, such as the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program, to fund 75% of the cost. The County needed to renew its MHMP within a tight time frame to meet the federal grant deadline and quality for funds. The Polis Center helped Washington County and the River Hills Economic Development District (EDD) & Regional Planning Commission (RPC) expedite its MHMP resulting in a good outcome for county citizens. (NOTE: A “safe room” is a hardened structure specifically designed to meet FEMA criteria and provide “near-absolute protection” in extreme weather events. They survive winds as high as 250 miles per hour.)

In addition to county mitigation plans, Polis works collaboratively with subject matter experts, state agencies, state universities, and other national partners, to develop a statewide Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan. The most recent plan (2019) identified 91 strategies to help mitigate the risk from natural hazards and build the resiliency of Indiana. It highlights some of Indiana’s best practices in mitigation.

Projections indicate that Indiana could see an increase in precipitation (6-8%) by mid-century, which will increase flooding risk in communities. There is also a projected increase in extreme temperature events (hot and cold). New research is indicating that the most frequent area of tornado activity nationwide (Tornado Alley, of which Indiana is not a part currently) is starting to shift eastward due to these precipitation and temperature changes. This shift would bring more frequent severe storms and/or tornadoes to the state. In addition, the threat of earthquakes is not confined to southwestern Indiana. The entire state needs to be prepared for an earthquake, and five new scenarios in the 2019 statewide plan show the projected effects of an earthquake in various parts of Indiana. The next state Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan will be released in 2024.

For more information on The Polis Center’s work with MHMP and flood plans, call at 317.274.2480 or email Danielle Lafever.