September 5, 2023 | Main Spotlight: Getting Ready for the Unexpected with the Main Street Disaster Preparedness Toolkit | By: Manuel T Ochoa, AICP, Principal & Founder, Ochoa Urban Collaborative, and Consultant on the National Park Service Main Street Community Disaster Preparedness and Resilience Program |
Hurricane Idalia storm surge in St. Petersburg, Florida at Flora Wylie Park. Photo by Adog.
- Natural disasters are increasing across the country and around the world.
- These events pose a serious threat to downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts.
- There are steps that you can take now to mitigate their effects, including hazard evaluation, checking insurance coverage, and meeting with local leaders.
As summer ends, there’s no doubt that Mother Nature is trying to tell us something. Whether its record-breaking heat, Canadian wildfire smoke, or near-boiling water off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, climate change impacts have been felt all over the United States and all over the world. As I write this article, Hurricane Idalia rapidly intensified into a major hurricane before making landfall in Florida’s Big Bend region. We have hundreds of studies, measurements, and our own experience to show us that the climate is rapidly changing.
And for those of us who care about our downtowns and commercial districts, it has been a particularly devastating summer. Record-breaking rainfall in early July damaged dozens of picturesque Vermont towns. Over 20 historic downtowns were damaged up and down the state including the Main Street communities of Brattleboro, Barre, and Montpelier, the state capitol. Historic precipitation, and even a hurricane, have wreaked havoc in California. And most dramatically, wildfires in Hawaii damaged an irreplaceable town.
Earlier in the summer, my family and I visited Maui for the first time. I was most excited about visiting Lahaina, Hawaii’s historic capital, first established by King Kamehameha in the 18th century after he unified Hawaii as an island nation. Besides the royal seat, Lahaina became an important port in the trans-Pacific trade and a whaling center. Most impressive was Front Street, Lahaina’s Main Street with its many shops and art galleries with sweeping views of the ocean. We also marveled under the shade of one of the largest banyan trees anywhere. The multiple trunks and branches covered an entire city block giving us a break from the cruel sun – that’s what Lahaina means in Hawaiian.
As you can imagine, we were devastated to learn that most of Lahaina burned to the ground in a firestorm in early August, taking over a hundred lives with 1,000 victims still unaccounted. We fell in love with Hawaii, especially its legendary hospitality, summed up in the word Aloha, which we learned is much more than a greeting. For example, we spent some time talking to the owner of Santa’s Pen, a locally owned Christmas store that specializes in personalized ornaments. The loss of life is devastating, as is the loss of Hawaii’s history and culture.
This is why the Main Street Disaster Preparedness and Resilience program is so timely. A three-year program funded by the National Park Service through the Emergency Historic Preservation Fund, the program provides national and regional workshops and is developing a toolkit to equip commercial district managers with the resources they need to prepare for the next disaster as well as how to rebuild more resiliently to help communities bounce back more quickly from the increasing number of disasters coming our way.
In honor of National Disaster Preparedness Month, we are providing some practical steps that Main Streets can take to prepare for the next, inevitable disaster First and foremost, visit Ready.gov, sponsored by FEMA. Ready.gov has worksheets and toolkits for you and your family as well as Ready Business with resources for businesses.
But more specifically, what can we do for our historic resources in our downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts? I would recommend starting with these five practical steps:
1. Look for hazards in your commercial district. Take a tour of your commercial district and look for potential hazards. Take a group on tour with a clip board and a smartphone for photos. As handy guide, use FEMA’s Risk Assessment Worksheet.
- Look for damaged or blocked storm drains. These could back up in a flash flood and damage the storefront.
- Check for dead tree branches. Damaged trunks or branches might have suffered from an accident, disease, or construction damage.
- Take a closer look at each building. Can you see any loose bricks or stones caused by cracked or damaged mortar? What about rusted or damaged decorative building materials such as ironwork or cast iron? Check for wood damaged by moisture or termites.
- Think about rooftops. While some potential hazards might be visible on a building’s cornice other potential roof hazards might not be so apparent. Ask a maintenance worker or contractor to check for loose antennas, loose bolts from air conditioning units, or other material that can fly off a roof and damage a building.
2. Take photographs of every building. As part of this exercise, photograph buildings from all sides including significant historic interiors wherever possible. Set-up an account with Google Photos or Apple Photos where participants can share and upload photos. If you can’t agree on a day to do this, ask each business to upload a photo.
3. Check insurance coverage. Most businesses do have insurance but more importantly, do they have the right one? Some types of flood insurance require additional coverage. Invite a local insurance agent and host a lunch to learn more about what kinds of insurance requirements businesses should consider.
4. Meet your county emergency management director. Take the opportunity to learn about your state’s plan for a major disaster, how your county is getting ready for the next disaster, and what mitigation projects your local government is considering making your community more resilient. Most importantly, what plans does your county have to help businesses recover should your commercial district experience a major disaster?
5. Hold a business continuity meeting. How many businesses in your district have a business continuity plan? And better yet, does your Main Street program have a business continuity plan? Perhaps your organization created one during the pandemic. Have you ever written it down? How applicable is it to other kinds of disasters? How can your businesses continue operating should they experience a fire, hurricane, earthquake, or other unforeseen disaster that would prevent them from using their storefront?
While FEMA has some general training materials easily accessible to all, we are gathering resources from states such as Oklahoma and Oregon that are training non-profit organizations and Main Streets. If you’d like to learn more, sign up for Getting Ready: Disaster Preparedness Training and Toolkit Launch on Friday, November 10, at PastForward, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s national conference in Washington, D.C. A limited number of travel scholarships are available.