Pictured: Aerial image of destroyed homes on the east side of Ventura following the Thomas Fire, December 2017. 

by Kimberly Rivers
kimberly@vcreporter.com 

As a response to the threat of wildfire and flooding, the Blue Lake Rancheria, a federally recognized Native American tribe in Humboldt County, northwestern California, built a microgrid and solar array in 2017 to ensure its community had a locally based source of power in the event of a natural disaster. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. 

Source: FEMA

In 2019, a wildfire hit the area and the larger electrical grid was shut down. The microgrid, an “island” of power separated from the regional grid, provided electricity to 10% of the population. Two lives were saved as a result. (1)

Having power in the event of a natural disaster is a key component of getting evacuation alerts, important instructions and other emergency messages to help residents, businesses, hospitals and first responders protect people and property when disaster strikes, and reduce the compounding negative impacts in the aftermath of a natural disaster. 

Rain gardens, resiliency parks, theater renovations (to act as evacuation shelters), aquifer storage and recovery projects, biomass plants, improvements to rail commuter lines to prevent hazardous material spills: These are all examples of projects communities ranging from small towns to entire states have implemented to protect themselves in the face of pending disasters, and to build resilience in the aftermath of unpreventable disasters. 

All of these projects, and many more, were included in Hazard Mitigation Plans adopted by the relevant body or jurisdiction, sometimes multiple jurisdictions. If the plan receives approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), then projects qualify for federal and state funding. 

Hazard Mitigation Plan Update

Currently, the Office of Emergency Services, an agency of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, is in the process of updating the county’s multi jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP). 

The current plan was adopted in 2015. 

Over 20 jurisdictions or districts, named as planning partners, are involved in the update and include representatives from each city in the county, water and sanitation districts and parks districts along with the Ventura County Fire Protection District, Ventura County Watershed Protection District, Ventura County Office of Education and California State University, Channel Islands.

National statistics on the financial impact of natural disasters in the U.S. Image: FEMA

In addition to the planning partners, representatives from various organizations were invited to join a steering committee. Those invited included  The Nature Conservancy, the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (VC CoLAB) and several local chambers of commerce. 

Ventura County has selected Tetra Tech to facilitate and assist in updating the plan. The Pasadena-based consulting and engineering services firm is publicly traded and has 450 offices worldwide. 

At the July 14 steering committee meeting, the vision, goals and objectives of the plan were reviewed for general consensus and approval. Over a dozen objectives were also reviewed, and while a few minor word-smithing requests were made, the objectives were accepted by the committee members. 

Objectives listed included a diverse range of methods to mitigate. 

National statistics on the financial impact of natural disasters in the U.S. Image: FEMA

The 19 objectives include: 

  • Enhancing local supply chain diversity, along with local food and energy production and increased multi-modal transportation. 
  • Research adopting and enforcing codes and standards to preserve life and property with a focus on affordability and feasibility in implementation. 
  • Promote greenbelts, fire breaks in certain communities to mitigate risk of wildfire. 
  • Protect vital records, strengthening or replacing structures and lifelines to reduce post-disaster disruption and facilitate short-term and long term recovery. 
  • Improve and expand warning and emergency communication systems. 
  • Foster and strengthen interjurisdictional collaboration in emergency services. 
  • Incentivize mitigation projects in high risk or repetitive loss areas. 
  • Supporting leadership within private sector, nonprofit organizations and community based organizations to implement local hazard mitigation activities.
  • Proactive management of natural resources including: grasslands, forests, oak woodlands, stream channels and beachers, in order to withstand and recover from natural disasters and minimize public safety risks. 
  • Holistic water management, support and enhance natural processes. 
  • Minimize economic impacts of hazard events to the economic drivers of the county.
  • Conduct public outreach activities that increase community awareness and understanding hazard risk, mitigation options and preparedness strategies. 

Understanding, mitigating hazards

According to FEMA, a key component of a HMP is public input from residents. To that end, the VCSD Office of Emergency Services has designed a public survey, that is live now, in order to assess the public’s understanding of risks from natural disasters in their neighborhood. Officials with OES stated at the July 14 meeting that the survey will be live through the month of August. 

According to the OES website the survey is confidential and will be used by the county to “gauge the level of knowledge community members have about the hazards that are most relevant…and their preparedness for disasters.” 

Critical infrastructure is a focus of hazard mitigation. According to FEMA, roadways, hospitals, water delivery systems, waste water systems, gas and oil pipelines and other energy infrastructure are all critical.

A FEMA report (2) states that for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation, $4 is saved in recovery spending, resulting in an overall benefit to taxpayers. 

Environmental and human-caused hazards

While the plan is not currently going to have a separate section for climate change-related hazards, the plan will include these adaptations throughout each section. This approach is allowed by FEMA, as it’s recognized that future and ongoing hazard response will have to adjust as climate change continues to influence several types of natural disasters in Ventura County including sea level rise, fires, drought and extreme weather events and temperatures. 

“Climate change in and of itself may not be a hazard, but it may change the characteristics of the hazards that currently affect the planning area,” states the FEMA planning handbook. 

Hazards don’t arise only as a result of natural disasters. Today the threats can come from technology or domestic terrorism as well, and hazard mitigation planning can include these threats — although FEMA does not require their inclusion in plans. 

Cyber attacks, as well as chemical and hazardous waste spills, leaks and related explosions and similar incidents can also be included in hazard mitigation planning, depending on whether they present a risk to the planning area and whether the steering committee and planning partners deem it beneficial. 

“People are the most important asset”

Many impacts from natural disasters ripple across communities and it makes sense that multiple jurisdictions and agencies work together on a cross-cutting plan. But FEMA has additional requirements for multi-jurisdictional plans and requires each participating entity to meet several requirements (44 CFR §201.6). These include identifying how each area’s risk from a particular hazard “may vary from the risks facing the entire planning area” [44 CFR §201.6(c)(2)(iii)] and “identifiable action items specific to the jurisdiction requesting FEMA approval or credit of the plan” [44 CFR §201.6(c)(3)(iv)]. 

Each jurisdiction must also formally adopt the plan. 

FEMA breaks down community assets as “anything that is important to the character and function of a community,” and names four broad categories to capture those assets for planning purposes: people, economy, built environment and natural environment. 

Each community will create an asset inventory based on these categories. They will also be ranked based on those that are more vulnerable to hazards. 

“People are the most important asset,” according to FEMA.

Three main goals of this type of planning cited by FEMA are to protect public safety and prevent loss of life and injury, reduce harm to existing and future development and to prevent damage to a community’s unique economic, cultural, and environmental assets. (3) FEMA also clarifies that the process should strive to align “risk reduction with community objectives . . . To have value, the plan must represent the current needs and values of the community.” 

This can become extremely important when mitigation projects involve private property. But FEMA guidelines explain that by engaging with the community early on, in an effective way, property owners can be part of the process, understand it, and have better buy-in if a project may impact their property. 

The process does require ample opportunity for the public to review and comment on a draft plan, prior to it being finalized and adopted. 

The jurisdictions participating in the Ventura County plan update mostly match those recommended by FEMA — although cultural institutions such as museums, libraries and historic buildings are not currently listed as planning partners. FEMA recommends that these entities participate in multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation planning, citing their potential to contain, hold or protect resources that are valuable from an architectural, historical or cultural aspect: documents, structures, records or other collections which are considered a valuable community resource. 

Take the survey

At the July 14 meeting under 200 responses were tallied on the survey and steering committee members discussed promoting it through their networks to improve the number of responses making the data more robust and improving the plan overall. 

The Community Survey for the Hazard Mitigation Plan update is online at: https://www.readyventuracounty.org/local-multijurisdictional-hazards-mitigation-plan-update/community-survey/ 

Those with limited Internet access or otherwise needing assistance can leave a message at: 805-654-5136. Messages are reviewed every day.