National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Langston: Counties at forefront of disaster preparation, response

By Beverly Schlotterbeck

Photo by David Hathcox

Linda Langston testifies on flood-mitigation efforts before a House subcommittee.

NACo President Linda Langston testified April 3 before a U.S. House subcommittee examining the impact of flood mitigation efforts at the local level. Langston, whose presidential initiative focuses on county resiliency, told the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management that counties are at the forefront of disaster preparation, mitigation and recovery.

“Disasters are local. Local governments are often first to the scene with police, sheriff and firefighters. They are also there for the cleanup, recovery and rebuilding,” she said.

Counties spend over $30 billion dollars annually funding first responders in police and sheriff ’s departments, emergency management professionals, 911 emergency call centers and even county planners who are responsible for mitigating the impact of natural disasters such as flooding.

Langston, a supervisor from Linn County, Iowa, highlighted three key efforts that counties undertake to mitigate the impact of severe flooding in their communities: proactive county planning, participation in the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP) Community Rating System and building relationships among different stakeholders.

“Proactive county planning is the cornerstone of flood mitigation efforts,” she said and highlighted several efforts from counties spanning the country from Fairfax County, Va. to Lee County, Fla. to Black Hawk County, Iowa to McKenzie County, N.D., and King County, Wash. 

Federal programs such as the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) have played significant roles in both pre- and post-disaster mitigation efforts.

“From providing the tools and resources needed for Black Hawk County to buy out repetitive-loss properties and enabling Coconino County, Ariz. to create water drainage conveyances, HMGP helps counties build safer communities after a disaster,” Langston said. In 2010, Coconino County experienced the largest wildfire in the state’s history, which created a new landscape prone to flash flooding.

Another program that significantly supplements county governments’ efforts to protect their communities and help them thrive is the Community Rating System (CRS), which rewards counties that undertake flood-mitigation projects with discounts for their residents’ flood national flood insurance policies.

Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Chairman Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) and NACo President Linda Langston exchange stories about local disasters after the committee’s hearing on flood mitigation.

“In my own county,” Langston said, “we participate in CRS not only because we want our residents to receive a discount on their flood insurance premiums but also because we want to educate our residents about true flood risk — to help protect our citizens and communities from future disasters. This program captures the most effective ways of informing and preparing community residents for flood hazard.”

Effective disaster preparedness and mitigation hinges on solid lines of communications and relationships all up and down the line, Langston emphasized.

“A large part of the county mission to reduce risk can be accomplished through strong relationships among county officials and county residents, among county government personnel and our state and federal partners. Planning, coordination and collaboration among all levels of government — local, state and federal — before a disaster is key.”

Langston was one of four panelists invited to Washington, D.C. by the subcommittee to testify. Other panelists included David Miller, associate administrator for FEMA’s Federal Insurance and Flood Mitigation Administration; Bryan Koon representing the National Emergency Management Association and Chad Berginnis, executive director, Association of State Floodplain Managers.

The House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management is a subdivision of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and is chaired by Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.).