Are We Planning Safer Communities?

Results of a National Survey of Community Planners

--an invited comment

Property-casualty insurance companies in the United States paid more than $90 billion to cover catastrophe losses during the 1990s, and local, state, and federal governments paid tens of billions of dollars more. If catastrophe trends continue, as they are projected to do, that decade's enormous losses could eventually become small in comparison. However, with land-use planning that takes into account an area's potential disaster risks, many losses could be avoided or reduced. Unfortunately, few communities have fully embraced this approach.

Are We Planning Safer Communities?, a study completed recently by the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), shows that few communities--including those that recently experienced a catastrophic loss--have comprehensive land-use plans that consider natural hazards risks.

IBHS is a national nonprofit organization funded by the insurance industry to reduce deaths, injuries, property damage, economic losses, and human suffering caused by natural disasters. Insurers have long supported efforts to prevent and reduce losses from natural catastrophes through improved building materials and construction techniques, stronger building codes, and other means. Comprehensive land-use plans that consider natural catastrophe risks could also do a great deal to mitigate future disasters.

A study completed last year at the University of North Carolina estimates that appropriate land-use measures could reduce expected property losses by one-third over the next 50 years (Burby, 2001). The greatest savings come from reducing the effects of landslides and floods. In all cases, maximum savings can be realized only if local comprehensive plans contribute to the effort.

Findings of the National Survey

To learn whether plans incorporate safety elements that could help lower catastrophe risks, IBHS and its Land Use Planning Committee worked with the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Certified Planners to survey municipal land-use planners throughout the U.S. Planners in 505 cities and counties in nearly every state responded. IBHS then weighted the data according to geographic distribution of the U.S. population.

To answer the survey, respondents received a booklet compiled by IBHS called Community Land Use Evaluation for Natural Hazards. They were asked a series of questions, and they provided information about their community, including size, disaster history, and factors they thought might help them to incorporate information about natural hazards into their local plans.

IBHS determined that the ideal local comprehensive plan would address eight elements:

  • Plan basics -- a general or comprehensive plan supported by a professional planning staff;
  • Quality data -- factual data and maps;
  • Identification of issues -- natural hazards and other community issues;
  • Community support and involvement;
  • Policies that specifically address hazards;
  • Coordination -- consistency with federal, state, regional, and internal community plans.
  • Implementation -- goals linked to specific actions; and
  • Organization -- a plan that is readable, comprehensible, and easy to use.

To produce a planning safety rating, IBHS used these elements to create a checklist of 71 items that planners could use. The typical community scored 48%, which earned a B minus on the IBHS safety report card. A surprisingly high percentage--8%--scored zero. On average, plans scored well above 50% on four of the eight elements--basics, citizen involvement, consistency, and organization. This is encouraging, because it means that local comprehensive plans provide a good basis for future growth and development. Overall, though, plans fell short in the areas that are most important for safe growth. They contained 40% or fewer of the items related to vulnerability, identification of issues, new policies and programs, and ways to implement these measures.

Most survey participants said they would be willing to use the information in the booklet to include safety considerations in their plans. However, they also said hazards planning elements would be difficult to implement without public demand as well as additional funding, support from elected officials, and technical assistance to do this type of planning. Other needed support included better mapping and data, state mandates for planning, additional staff, and legislative changes.

Average Scores
Overall Plan Quality = 48%
Plan Basics 66%
Quality of Data 30%
Issues Identified 39%
Community Support 62%
Policies 34%
Coordination 57%
Implementation 39%
Organization 57%

States and Hazard Planning

The importance of interest at the state level was borne out by the sharply higher scores in the six states that require local planning that takes into account natural hazards risks. This indicates that one key to better performance is state-mandated local comprehensive plans.

Are We Planning Safer Communities? found that a typical municipal land-use plan addresses only half the elements that contribute to a safe, hazard-resistant community. Communities in six states scored highest in planning for safety--Florida (statewide), Nevada (large cities and counties only), North Carolina (coastal region communities only), Oregon (statewide), South Carolina (coastal communities only), and Washington (growth management act jurisdictions). These states required local planning, specified that plans must attend to safety from natural hazards, and required that local plans be consistent with state policy. Scores in these six states averaged 55% higher than localities in states that did none of these things.

Where states did not mandate planning but had established specific requirements for intergovernmental consistency and a hazards element in local plans, community scores were nearly 30% higher. Two states--Georgia and Nevada (for smaller cities and counties)--fell into this category.

There was also a significant trend toward higher average scores for communities in states that mandate local comprehensive plans with hazard elements. In states with planning mandates but no requirements for consistency or hazard safety elements, scores dipped closer to the overall average.

Why Be Concerned?

The need for land-use planning with hazards elements is increasing, particularly where the U.S. population is growing, because the greatest growth is occurring on the east and west coasts, along the Gulf of Mexico, and in and around forests and wildlands. These areas are at highest risk for major catastrophes such as hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, and wildfires.

The United States is already seeing the effects of this growth in high-risk areas. Since 1989, the nation has frequently entered periods in which losses from catastrophic natural disasters averaged about $1 billion per week. And these losses are expected to continue to rise (Mileti, 1999). This is a disturbing trend for the private and public entities that bear much of the financial risk associated with these losses.

Further, social and economic disruptions and environmental damage caused by natural disasters can affect entire states and regions as well as the nation. Proper land-use planning would help ensure that development and redevelopment occurs outside high-risk areas and/or employs mitigation measures to minimize the potential impacts of natural disasters. For instance, in low-lying areas where hurricanes can cause flooding, homes and businesses either would not be allowed or would be built (in conjunction with local building codes) in a manner that mitigates risk.

Hazards safety policies within community plans can make it easier to implement necessary zoning ordinances and building code requirements. Such policies can also help inform municipal departments, real estate developers, and the public about the extent and magnitude of natural hazards risks in a community.

Diana L. McClure, Consultant, and Members, Land Use Planning Committee, Institute for Business and Home Safety

Burby, Raymond J., Editor. 2001 Delphi Survey of the Impacts of Hazard Adjustments on Property Losses from Selected Natural Hazards, 2000-2050: Summary of Findings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Department of City and Regional Planning.

Mileti, Dennis S. 1999 Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.

Are We Planning Safer Communities? Results of a National Survey of Community Planners and Natural Disasters (2002, 24 pp., free) is available from the IBHS web site: Click on "Appendix B" for the survey booklet. The IBHS Showcase State Model for Natural Disaster Resistance and Resilience, which includes state and local planning concepts, is also available at

Storms of '98 Now Available in Spanish

Last year, we announced the availability of the Hazard Center's Special Publication 38, The Storms of '98: Hurricanes Georges and Mitch -- Impacts, Institutional Response, and Disaster Politics in Three Countries, by Richard Olson, Ricardo Alvarez, Bruce Baird, Amelia Estrada, Vincent Gawronski, and Juan Pablo Sarmiento Prieto (see the Observer, Vol. XXV, No. 6, p. 5). That work examines the response and "disaster politics" (including media coverage) associated with Hurricane Georges in the Dominican Republic and Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua. The focus is the "marginalization" of national emergency response agencies. These organizations--typically small national civil defense offices--were quickly shouldered aside when the disasters became major catastrophes demanding international attention and aid. New, temporary offices were established, with consequent duplication of effort, lack of coordination, and poor response.

To deal with this difficulty in the future, Olson and his colleagues offer their "accordion option" under which a national emergency organization recognizes its probable marginalization and therefore prepares a plan for the head of state that outlines how national-level disaster response can be expanded to include other ministries and organizations, while the emergency management office itself retains an organizing and coordinating role.

To make this important work available as widely as possible, The Storms of '98 has been translated into Spanish and is now available free from the web site of the Regional Disaster Information Center (CRID) in San José, Costa Rica, at In English it remains available from

Persons desiring a printed copy can still purchase The Storms of '98 for $20.00, plus shipping ($5.00, U.S.; $8.00, Canada; $12.00, Mexico; $18.00, beyond North America) from the Publications Administrator, Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, University of Colorado, 482 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309-0482; (303) 492-6819; fax: (303) 492-2151; e-mail:

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