Restore the Community

A Disaster Recovery Resource Developed Specifically for Planners

April Durham, PhD, Lilly Rudolph, AICP, and Jennifer Haddow, PhD
September 2018
With the successive mega-fires sweeping California, we’ve seen the signs thanking fire fighters and other first responders for their diligent efforts to save communities from one end of the state to the other. The post office has even issued a Forever stamp in recognition of their tremendous efforts. The smoke clears or the shaking stops and the first responders break camp when the immediate threat passes. This is when the planning department kicks into high gear. While planners and community development staff have their roles as first responders too, the real work of the planning department just begins when the immediate threats pass.

Communities prepare for response to oncoming disaster with a range of planning tools: the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan, the safety element in general plans, and a variety of ordinances that reflect state and local goals guide disaster response. These each identify general ways to shift into emergency operations relative to the detailed hazard assessments applicable to specific regions. Usually, however, they do not detail the ways that planning staff will be trained, services coordinated, or processes fulfilled after a major hazardous event.


For handy reference, this article includes hyperlinks to websites, ordinances, articles, and forms that serve as examples for crafting recovery tools for your community. The links are called out in blue and open in a new page when clicked.

This article contributes to existing resources that discuss ways to handle natural disasters by outlining approaches specific to planning departments with detailed suggestions that can be scaled for size and budget, to help with the process of restoring the community once the immediate threat has passed.

A Community-specific Approach

Thomas fire in Ventura, December 9, 2017. Photo courtesy US Forest Service

California is vulnerable to seismic shifts, wind-driven wildfire, and mudslides on hillsides denuded by fire and drought. With sea level rise, coastal communities are vulnerable to disturbances resulting from coastal storms and erosion. Like everywhere else, the state can also be affected by hazardous material spills, acts of terrorism, and other human-made disasters. The anxiety provoked by these and other imminent threats can be mediated to a certain degree with a plan, but sometimes practical implementation actions pose the biggest challenges to a plan’s success. A community-specific assessment of threats, resources, and needs is necessary to design implementation actions for any long-range plan, and a recovery program for planning departments is no exception. Creativity, training, communication, and collaboration form the four key areas this article identifies as important to successful disaster recovery efforts.


“Ask yourself, ‘what’s the right thing to do for my community, who will be impacted?’ And now how do we get there.”

Vince Nicoletti, Deputy Director Planning and Development Services, San Diego County

Creativity and innovation are keywords for the current era, more so than ever considering the unfamiliar intensity of recent natural disasters. Creating advance plans, programs, and action items for preparedness and recovery might seem incidental compared to managing the effects of disaster when occurs; still rainy-day preparations make sense when considering the aftermath of recent events like the wildfires in Sonoma, Ventura, and Redding; the mudslide in Montecito, and the earthquakes of the last 20-plus years in Napa, the San Fernando Valley, and the Bay Area.

The American Planning Association provides a model recovery ordinance that clearly states how preparation of a pre-event recovery plan can “help the city organize to expedite recovery in advance of a declared disaster and to mitigate hazardous conditions before and after such a disaster” (APA 2014). Furthermore, FEMA published a guide for pre-disaster recovery planning in 2017 that discusses a path for identifying ongoing preparedness activities. The plan offers key activities from defining the planning team that will develop the pre-disaster recovery plan and associated regulations to establishing processes for post-disaster decision making and policy setting. In the end, all planning efforts inform one another, and each is needed to make the others robust and comprehensive. As the FEMA flow graphic provided here indicates, a pre-disaster recovery plan is as essential to the process as any other local planning documents as they inform policies and programs that make post-disaster recovery possible. While certain details may not be appropriate in every case, planning departments can leverage other long-range plans to facilitate the direction they take relative to the types of hazards to which their communities might be vulnerable.

Of course jurisdictions may share general needs, but local planning staff will understand the specific needs of their community and can target leadership, operational practices, and ongoing preparedness activities. Creativity becomes significant when planners begin to drill down into the details.

South Napa 2014: historic Sam Kee Laundry building after 6.0 magnitude earthquake. Photo courtesy James Gunn, 2014.

Erin Morris, Code Enforcement and Planning Manager for the City of Napa, speaks of her experience working on the Santa Rosa Local Hazard Mitigation Plan when she says that receiving federal relief funding might be contingent on having emergency ordinances approved and in-place before the disaster hits. She advocates for anticipating needs and crafting post-disaster recovery ordinances in advance so they can be approved before or immediately after a disaster. Ordinances might address key topics like overtime reimbursement for exempt personnel and similar costs that could be met by FEMA and other recovery funding sources.

Drilling down to the details is vital to anticipate what might be needed based on the type of disaster: Who will process permits for rebuilding? Where is the closest disaster refuse disposal site? Who is authorized to perform red tag inspections? How do decisions get made? The City of Thousand Oaks Public Works department, headed by Director Jay Spurgin, partnered with a local biopharmaceutical company to train qualified personnel on performing red-tag inspections to facilitate getting back to business after a major earthquake or other disaster. Other cities and counties, such as deployVentura and Santa Barbara, deployed contract planning consultants to facilitate permit processing, plan checks, and other re-build necessities.

In its guide for community resilience relative to buildings and infrastructure, the National Institute of Standards and Technology indicates the importance of understanding the local community members and their present and future needs. “This includes population demographics and locations, economic indicators, social vulnerabilities, social capital” and the capacities and gaps in institutional and organizational capacity that could be improved (NIST 2016, 32). It is important to recognize if recovery efforts relative to building will be in rural, suburban, or urban areas; to know environmental justice populations will be particularly hard-hit if a neighborhood is affected by a disaster; and to understand clearly the level of effort involved in rebuilding single-family homes versus multi-family residences or mixed-use facilities. Then the question arises: “How can planning practices best address the specific needs of each type of recovery?”

Planning departments for cities large and small should devise an approach to handling the tasks of rebuilding based on the needs of each planning department. City of Thousand Oaks City Manager, Andrew Powers, recommends a proactive approach that involves thinking about exactly what your community needs and then finding partnerships that can address those needs on the fly. This might mean getting creative with provisional approaches beyond the status quo to accomplish some tasks, like Thousand Oaks’ choice to partner with a private business to facilitate the code conformance relative to safely re-establishing vital services like power and water.

A coordinated, co-operative process of matching urgent needs with available resources happens before the disaster hits. Identify resources in advance, like the local large business in Thousand Oaks, contract planning consultants, or industrial hygiene technicians capable of handling hazardous waste, and create relationships with those partners before they are needed. The American Planning Association states that “it is …important to establish and maintain a pattern of close cooperation between agency staff and [any] consultant[s]” employed to assist with recovery efforts (Kelly 1993). As more than one planning director notes, the time to find collaborators is not when the disaster is bearing down upon you. On-call contracts, contact lists, and ongoing relationships with architects, builders, and planning consultants make for a dynamic collection of resources that can be leveraged quickly if they are established in advance of the disaster.

Other tactics could include partnering with consultants and knowledgeable specialists who can efficiently and effectively supplement departmental staff. In the City of Ventura, the Community Development department worked with temporary contract planners to prepare packets with permits, zoning requirements, existing entitlements, and site plans in advance of homeowner requests. If possible, this type of resource can be delivered digitally, saving time for both planning staff and property owners, for whom email may be the best form of transmission when mail may not reach them at a home address for some time after a disaster. Of course, that requires some advance preparation as plans, permits, and other paper documents may need to be scanned.

Allocating staff can also be complicated, particularly when the disaster increases the workload of an already-strained department. Nevertheless, in San Diego County, Deputy Director Planning and Development Services, Vince Nicoletti mentioned the County found it useful to assign an individual planner to each affected site after a wildfire destroyed thousands of residences. This focused attention facilitated the process of rebuilding and aided coordination after some of the most damaging fires in state history, particularly when a site no longer existed to deliver mail.

All of this amazing preparation can only be implemented if staff, consultants, and other partners are informed and trained on how the post-disaster recovery efforts will play out, particularly when staffers are also affected and stressed by disaster.

Preemptive strategies have helped planning departments across the nation improve organization and efficiency when responding to communities’ greatest natural threats. These include some of the following:

  1. Online permit history databases
  2. Infrastructure vulnerability assessments
  3. Inter- and intra-organizational charts, contact information, roles, and responsibilities
  4. General plan updates, including safety elements
  5. Climate action plans
  6. Communication plans
  7. Rebuild ordinances
  8. Debris removal and disposal plans
  9. Local hazard mitigation plans
  10. Recovery plans that include pre-event and post-disaster recovery policies, strategies, and actions


“In a world full of competing emergencies and disasters, it really helps if there is an internal locomotive that can help us [focus our] attention.”

Jan Egeland, Norweigian diplomat, political scientist, and humanitarian leader

U.S. Marines with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 364, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing from Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, assist California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and local firefighting agencies containing the Fires in Camp Pendleton, Calif. May 16, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photograph by GySgt. Donald Bohanner/Released)

Training sometimes takes a back seat to the actual execution of tasks, but as any athlete knows, grace and skill come with practice. In times of stress, staff members can be served by solid training as they will automatically be able to implement what they have learned.

Particularly hard-hit by wildfire events, San Diego County developed an innovative, flexible approach to training over the last 15 years. They hold sessions twice a year or more and involve City and County planners, emergency personnel, utility company staff, and non-profit or industry stakeholders. Nicoletti has worked with colleagues to develop rigorous, regular programs with real-time scenarios. Quarterly or semi-annual, half-day or full-day sessions give staffers, emergency responders, and volunteers a chance to role-play and use interactive tools like GIS and communications devices to problem solve the details that arise in different situations.

Recovery resources need to detail the people, tools, and places available upon which planners can draw. For example, Nicoletti emphasized preparing contact lists with volunteer organizations and business partners and updating them frequently, at least annually, but certainly anytime personnel have changed. A comprehensive contact list for recovery activities includes service companies: debris removal contractors, staff cross-trained for field inspections, and utilities providers. Relief organizations should be included trainings so they know who to contact for logistics, where to send people who are ready to help with matters as small as feeding animals to those as large as helping families find provisional shelter or obtain a permit to temporarily park a recreational vehicle on their affected properties.

Student firefighters at the Women in Wildfire Training Camp assemble for instructions during a field exercise. (Forest Service photo by Julissa Gonzalez)

The Sonoma County Volunteer Center is one hub where volunteers and nonprofits in the county in connect. Partnering with organizations like this during training efforts can smooth the path for real-time action, particularly for activities that are beyond the scope of planning services but that affect residents and businesses. Volunteers can also be instrumental in disseminating information by word of mouth when normal communication systems break down during power outages or if wireless facilities become disabled.

Involving other jurisdictions in the training helps the team vet flaws in the approach, anticipate unfamiliar situations, and adapt the tools for the specific needs of rural, suburban, and urban regions. Organization charts that show the flow of responsibility and who to ask for information or equipment, from tractors to door keys, makes reaching out to those in the know much easier. Training can also work to incorporate local residential and business communities and help neighborhoods form support networks that distribute accurate information about resources and processes for recovery. Speaking of communication, distributing information becomes particularly difficult when networks fail or normal.


“Communication is the key to disaster management, and post-disaster recovery.”

Thomas Connelly, public safety expert and former police captain in Los Altos, California

It may be an understatement to say communication is essential during a disaster. When people have lost their homes and feel overwhelmed by potential instability, communication becomes complicated. Sometimes even the most tried-and-true systems fail. When cell towers burned in the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, the reverse 9-1-1 and text message alerts did not work, elevating the effects of disaster. In the days immediately afterwards, a Facebook page was established and updated by local citizens about lost pets, donations, events and meetings, requests for help, and where to volunteer. With over 4,500 members, the page still shows activity months after the fire. This kind of grass roots support system was formalized by Sonoma County and the City of Santa Rosa with their “Rebuilding Together” webpages, featuring detailed information about debris removal, permitting processes, tax assessments, and comprehensive document libraries. Particularly useful on the City’s site are “urgency ordinances,” three regulations designed to add resiliency, facilitate rebuilding, and prevent rental price gouging. At the top of the City’s “Resilient City Permit Center & Rebuilding Information” page, a link to real-time rebuild data tracking that tracks the burn sites and their recovery progress.

As soon as damage reports started to roll in from the 2017 Thomas Fire, Community Development Director for the City of Ventura, Jeff Lambert, considered what might be needed in advance of requests from homeowners seeking to rebuild. Taking a cue from Sonoma County, the City of Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara County departments set up a separate webpage to address the rebuild process. These sites can provide resources to facilitate the permitting process, including who to call, approvals needed, and details about standard and regional submittal requirements.

Some jurisdictions opt to provide interactive maps of affected areas with detailed information. Santa Barbara County’s interactive map includes links from specific parcels to permit history, geographical data, and building and planning cases along with descriptions and dates. The City of Ventura adopted a rebuild overlay zone ordinance just a couple of months after the Thomas fire to facilitate the permit process. These include some of the following provisions:

  • Legal nonconforming structures established as of the date when the emergency was declared could receive expedited review if they were constructed or repaired exactly as they had been before they were damaged or destroyed
  • Some changes to the original design could be included in the new plans only if they met the existing general plan requirements and zoning codes and if owners of adjacent properties sign off on the modifications
  • Certain regulations about building on the hillside that were in place after the destroyed home was originally build would be waived with the provision that the Community Development Director would verify the preexisting height and that that height would not be exceeded

While property owners may be focused primarily on getting on with the business of rebuilding their homes, they may need temporary housing in the meantime. The City of Ventura offered one solution: extend the length of time for permits for RVs for residential use on fire-affected sites   to 18 months, with the possibility of extending the permit for another 18 months if necessary, to allow homeowners to live on their land, attach to utilities, and be present for the rebuild process.  This provision was communicated during town hall-style meetings, on a local radio show, and in the local news outlets.

To keep the communication flowing well beyond the tail end of the actual disaster, the City of Santa Rosa offers an open data portal that reflects daily updates to rebuild progress, making the claim for the city’s resiliency in the face of terrible disaster. The snapshots show the active permit process (1), a rebuild progress map (2) with links to specific parcels, and a graph showing the progress on debris removal (3). While this and other information does not necessarily facilitate planning activities, it does communicate with the public the level of effort required (and achieved) by planning staff, providing an easy and efficient form of public outreach.

This home is being rebuilt while debris still covers the ground. Debris is heaped along the curbs to be hauled to a central disposal site. Richard O’Reilly/FEMA.

In Ventura, power was out for several days and internet access was less than reliable. Scrambling to get the word out during the Thomas fire, Lambert used local radio and online sources to get information to residents. At Ventura County, Chris Stephens, Director of Resource Management Agency, notes that the numerous and consistent town-hall style meetings the County held with affected property owners were particularly useful in getting information out clearly, concisely, and in a timely manner. Of particular concern was what would be done with debris when it was removed. Inter-jurisdictional communication between City and County staff (jurisdictions that happen to share a facility on the east side of Ventura) alleviated the potential for confusion over specifics like where to take debris and timeframes for when construction could begin. The City of Ventura’s website also provided information on workshops that could help affected property owners with everything from insurance claims to temporary electirc power needs. They prepped residents in fire-affected areas with a “Flood/Mud Preparedness Event” shortly after the fires and severe rain storms. Finally, a workshop with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service representative and a natural resources professor from the University of California shortly after the fire informed residents about erosion control and fire-safe landscaping.

Interagency teaming along with collaborations with planning consultants and other jurisdictions can ease the recovery process. This includes the mutual aid agreements already in place as part of hazard plans, but it extends beyond that to ascertaining best practices in other areas and figuring out how to hone those for the needs of your community.


“Collaboration among jurisdictions, local business partners, and infrastructure providers goes a long way toward making the recovery process less confusing.”

Chris Stephens, Director of Resource Management Agency for Ventura County

When Erin Morris was with the City of Santa Rosa, she found collaboration key to response and recovery efforts. She led an inter-departmental team to develop the City’s Local Hazard Mitigation Plan and found that emergency planning efforts finalized just months before the Tubbs fire in 2017 helped grow relationships that were priceless when that disaster hit. Some takeaways included:

MALIBU, CA – JANUARY 28, 2010: Homeowners along the famous stretch of Broad Beach in Malibu are hustling to build huge sandbag walls that will be reinforced with truckloads of boulders trying to stem damage caused by rising seas and stormy tides. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

  • Build an organization chart before the event with names and contact information for inter-agency and departmental staff and volunteers and keep it updated
  • Invite stakeholders across the jurisdiction along with members of disaster response volunteer groups to participate in regular training with the planning department as a way to network and exchange ideas, including architects, builders, contractors, and engineers
  • Organize regular training sessions on a range of specific topics related to disaster preparation and response to develop relationships outside the planning division
  • Reach out to communities with experience handling similar disasters to discover their best practices and lessons learned

Whatever direction makes sense for your community, adapting to intradepartmental and inter-jurisdictional collaboration to your department’s needs will increase capacities over going it alone.

Homes and streets of a neighborhood affected by the Santa Barbara County mudslides January 9, 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard photo).

Santa Barbara County staff faced exceptional challenges with the January 2018 debris flow that occurred following a significant rain event in an area ravaged by the Thomas Fire during the previous month. The County notes that “unlike rebuilding after a fire, the [debris flow rebuilds pose] unique challenges” that require a case manager to consider topography beyond the recommendations in the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps, accounting for changes in creek profiles. Furthermore, these changes in the very ground upon which the county stands demand different types of hydrologic analysis and geotechnical and hydraulic engineering assessments, to say nothing of the requirements to safely and effectively remove or incorporate debris (mud) deposited from other sites into the new site design. These challenges required County staff to expand their own understanding and to reach out to subject-matter experts who could best advise the residents and business owners as to how to ascertain any hidden hazards and safely dispose of debris; to develop site plans that accommodate the new topography and hydrology; and to partner with builders experienced in this kind of recovery construction.

Independent of jurisdictional guidance, a group of engineers, architects, and builders in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties joined ranks after the Thomas fire to develop a list of resources each could recommend when their clients were in need. For example, they had environmental scientists who could assess for soil or water contamination, engineers who could work on geotechnical studies, and water experts who could assess hydrology conditions. The group was then able to circulate announcements for when the City of Ventura held meetings offering building professionals guidance about recovery efforts.

State and federal agencies also track debris and pollutants and file reports such as the environmental assessment of burn debris from the 2007 San Diego and San Bernardino county fires. CalOES, concerned about the potential for widespread public exposure to toxic materials, commissioned this particular report to inform FEMA and the USEPA about the possible “surface water and ground water contamination from offsite migration of hazardous substances [in] in the burn debris and ash” (CalOES 2007, i). The report effectively provides FEMA and other federal agencies with information that may be considered a public safety issue, and for which the cost of treatment may be eligible for reimbursement under the Public Assistance Program (44 CFR 206.224).

In her capacity as an urban planner for jurisdictions across the nation, Ventura County Planning Manager, Denice Thomas, notes that departments like public works and planning and water departments need to collaborate to craft best management practices for engineering and construction to develop new forms of land use and community design to address the growing threat from natural disasters caused by climate change. As with New York City after Superstorm Sandy, planning departments could benefit from reconsidering physical and structural requirements for building in high-risk zones. This would involve coordination with city engineers, traffic consultants, the federal government, and other partners to evaluate the proliferation of impervious surfaces, rebuilding in at-risk corridors, and even the way that highways and bridges are constructed in new developments.

Collaboration is often difficult in the throes of a stressful event: the who, what, where, and when of available resources are best sorted before disaster arrives and your planning team is faced with the overwhelming questions of who’s in charge, where’s the phone list, and what’s next for our community.

Restore the Community Guide

Rincon prepared an abbreviated guide you can print and keep at your desk. Please click on the image below and a pdf will download.

References and Resources

Articles about disaster preparedness

Ferrara, Tony, “Is Your City Prepared for the Next Major Disaster?” Western City, October 1, 2014.

Grabar, Henry, “Boston is One of the Best Prepared U.S. Cities to Handle a Crisis,” Citylab, April 19, 2013.

Pope, Kristen, “The New Normal: Local Communities are Finding Better Ways to Plan for, and Recover from Wildfire,” Planning Magazine a publication of the American Planning Association, March 2018.

Tong, Reanna, “Disaster Response and Recovery in the United States,” Multiple Cities, January 15, 2018.

Articles about hazards and threats

Bevacqua, Anthony, Danlin Yu, and Yaojun Zhang, “Coastal vulnerability: Evolving concepts in understanding vulnerable people and places,” Environmental Science and Policy, April 2018(82), 19-29.

Welsh, Mark G., Ann-Margaret Esnard, “Closing gaps in local housing recovery planning for disadvantaged displaced households,” Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, 2009(11,3), 195-212.

Articles about communication and disaster

Kim, Jooho and Makarand Hastak, “Social network analysis: Characteristics of online social networks after a disaster,” International Journal of Information Management, February 2018 (3), 86-96.

Articles about recovery

Cutter, Susan L., Lindsey Barnes, Melissa Berry, Christopher Burton, Elijah Evans, Eric Tate, Jennifer Webb, “A place-based model for understanding community resilience to natural Disasters,” Global Environmental Change, 2008(18), 598-606.

Miltner, Olivia, “City Planning for Natural Disasters Pivots from ‘Recovery to Resilience’,” Accuweather, August 7, 2017. Includes interactive map:

Smith, Gavin, Amanda Martin, and Dennis E. Wegner, “Disaster Recovery in an Era of Climate Change: the unrealized promise of institutional resilience,” Handbook of Disaster Research, H. Rodriguez, W. Donner, and J. Trainor (eds), New York: Springer, 595-619.

Resources and articles about resources

Kelly, Eric Damian, “Selecting and Retaining a Planning Consultant: RFPs, RFQs, Contracts, and Project Management,” Planning Advisory Service Report No. 443, February 1993, revised and edited for the web 2018

Topping, Kenneth C. “Adope a Pre-Event Recovery Ordinance.” Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation Briefing Paper #8, American Planning Association in collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Association, Washington, DC. 2014.

National Institute of Standards and Technology, Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems, Volume 1, US Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, May 2016.

Recovery resource agencies list

Disaster Recovery Plans

Galveston, Texas 

Lancaster, California – Lancaster Emergency Operations Plan

San Diego, California 

Shoreline, Washington

We provide services to assist planning departments in their preparation and recovery efforts.

Web page design, Stephanie Jones 2018
Last Updated: 10.30.2018