Hazardous Conditions: Mitigation Planning and Pandemics

May 12, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of coordinated responses among emergency management and other stakeholders to implement an effective strategy for handling a long and complex disaster. Due to a number of factors, pandemics are more likely to occur in the future. Thus, identifying and planning for the risks of potential disasters, such as a pandemic, is the first step to ensuring that communities and regions are prepared for them. To help achieve this level of preparation, each U.S. state develops a hazard mitigation plan, which identifies top local risks and provides a framework for long term strategies to reduce risk and protect citizens and property from damage. These Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-approved plans are required in order for states to apply for certain non-emergency disaster assistance from the agency, as well as for states to update and re-submit plans to FEMA for approval every five years.

Many states categorize pandemics as having a low probability of occurring when compared to other natural hazards, but the current pandemic has shown the long term devastating social and economic consequences. In particular, COVID-19 has had disproportionate effects on low-income communities of color and front-line workers. Thus, in addition to having a clear strategy and response plan, it is essential to identify the most vulnerable populations and hazard areas, and to have a strong framework for coordination among emergency management and public health agencies.

Although each hazard mitigation plan is approved by FEMA, each state widely varies in how thoroughly it includes pandemic risk assessment and strategy in the plan. In a qualitative review of the most recent hazard mitigation plans in the United States (50 states and 5 territories) on handling a pandemic, the following trends emerged:

  • 14 states/territories with plans had no mention of pandemic or infectious disease planning within their hazard mitigation plan.
  • 8 states/territories mention pandemic planning but do not discuss further how the state or agency will be able to mitigate the hazard from the event.
  • 12 states/territories partially discuss the risks that a pandemic could pose to the state. Some states identified that more research and planning is needed to mitigate a pandemic.
  • 11 states/territories have either a more thorough assessment of risks to the state, or a long term strategy, but did not have both.
  • 7 states/territories have a thorough risk assessment and strategy in coordination with other state agencies, most often with the state’s public health agency or a pandemic response team and task force.
  • The remaining states/territories were omitted from this analysis because they did not have publicly available or accessible hazard mitigation plans.

California’s 2018 hazard mitigation plan, developed by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, is recognized as one of the stronger mitigation plan frameworks. The hazard mitigation plan notes that the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) takes the lead on planning, in direct coordination with health care and emergency management agencies at the state and local level. Within CDPH, the Center for Infectious Diseases Division of Communicable Disease Control develops a Pandemic Influenza Operational Plan, and is the leader on disease surveillance and vaccine management. The CDPH also works with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to plan how to communicate pandemic risks to local government and residents, such as sending out alerts or helping to put together county or municipal response plans.

Some states such as Alabama (2018 plan) and Georgia (2019 plan) considered including pandemic planning in their hazard mitigation strategy, but opted not to include it due to higher priority hazards in the state. Illinois (2018 plan) acknowledged that their pandemic section was not sufficient and could be expanded on in future plans. North Carolina (2018 plan) identified that the state would be susceptible to a pandemic, but attributes a 1 to 33% annual probability and states that it is “relatively unlikely” that the state would experience an outbreak of disease in the future.

The differences in state prioritization and the probabilities of pandemics in FEMA approved hazard mitigation plans, as well as the depth of the planning strategies, require further analysis, particularly in terms of outcomes. Although many California agencies have been following their pandemic response plan, the state still saw major spikes in cases and became a hotspot in December, 2020 and January, 2021. Thus, planning must go beyond disaster response but also building community resilience by bolstering healthcare, Internet access, and other needs for direct assistance when it is needed most. Although hazard mitigation plans can help identify the networks and communication strategies needed, they are just one piece of the response framework. There is an important opportunity for state and local emergency management to strengthen responses and coordinate with public health plans for future events that could be like COVID-19, as well as to prioritize identifying and having a plan to protect people and sectors that would be most affected by a pandemic due to structural inequities. Going forward, FEMA and states can work to evaluate outcomes from COVID-19 to devise more effective hazard mitigation plans.

You can check the status of your state or local hazard mitigation plan here.