When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, many nations and communities were caught by surprise. While the novel coronavirus created unimaginable challenges to public health and the economy, the borough of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (population 21,461), and the city of Decatur, Georgia (population 25,696), were better prepared than many. Why? Both places had developed a pandemic response plan in 2009, when the H1N1 influenza pandemic threatened public health.
Decatur’s 2009 pandemic preparedness and response plan addresses the impact of a pandemic event on the community, personnel, and systems, noting that the procedures in its plan apply to other events such as chemical, biological, man-made, or natural disasters. It identifies critical supplies, social distancing protocols, cleaning procedures, and plans for telework. While the COVID-19 pandemic created some different challenges than were imagined in the 2009 plan, Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold said that the plan was a “perfect starting point, as it gave us something to organize around.”
Unlike the 2009 plan assumption that the viral outbreak would be isolated to Decatur, the COVID-19 pandemic required extensive coordination with the county, school system, local college, housing authority, and business leaders. “Our management team met face-to-face in February 2020, and went through step-by-step who would be responsible for priority activities, such as ordering supplies and getting our communications plan propped up.” Chambersburg was motivated to develop a pandemic plan due to its unique preparedness challenges as the only municipality in Pennsylvania to operate most public utilities, including electricity, water, sanitary sewer, storm sewer, natural gas, and sanitation. With the responsibility to operate utilities 24/7 even during a crisis or emergency, the borough has been attentive to disaster preparedness.
One important aspect of the Chambersburg’s 2009 pandemic response plan is that it anticipated the need for assistance from the faith community to address the needs of residents who might become too sick to care for themselves or their families. In March 2020, Jeffrey Stonehill, borough manager/director of utilities, reported that “ten Chambersburg churches stepped forward to offer food supplies to any families that might become homebound because of the pandemic.”
Stonehill stresses the importance for decision making to be centralized and affirmative. “Throughout the crisis, the Chambersburg town council allowed me the authority to make many tough administrative and operational decisions. The council president and mayor provided me with an almost-daily sounding board on policies associated with personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, COVID leave time, facility operations, and community outreach.”
The Chambersburg council also had authorized the hiring of a full-time health and safety employee prior to the pandemic. “Having a dedicated staff member (Paul Flohr) who was knowledgeable and available to provide information, inspection, and training was invaluable. He became an expert on the Centers for Disease Control and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines, supervised off-hour disinfection of buildings and vehicles, and managed individual employee cases when they or their family members were suspected of being exposed to or contracting COVID-19.”
The Communications Imperative
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was devastated by a 2008 flood event, but when faced with the second-highest flood event in its history in 2016, the city suffered virtually no property damage. Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said his advice to local government leaders facing massive recovery challenges is “Do not underestimate the power of a plan.” Cedar Rapids completed a Flood Control System plan within five months of the 2008 flood event, which was followed by a neighborhood planning process.
The early planning events created opportunities to focus on the future and also allowed residents to share their experiences and begin the healing process. The community’s shared vision to build stronger led to decisive policy action by elected officials and quick implementation by staff. The steps Cedar Rapids took since 2008 enabled the city to successfully fight the 2016 flood.
“You need to over communicate and provide consistent messages,” Pomeranz said. “We quickly realized that the traumatic experience of the flood made it more difficult to ensure information was being properly received by residents. In response, we found many ways to repeat the same message. We also were deliberate in repeating why the information was important, instead of assuming the resident had heard about it before.”
Every well-prepared local government should have a crisis communications plan with a list of key contacts. As disasters are notoriously unpredictable, the contact list should include back-up contacts, work and cell phone numbers, and email addresses. Texts and emails can work through alternate channels even when cell phone towers are down. Identifying an individual who will be the community’s spokesperson is important, recognizing the importance of consistent messages and regular progress reports. Communications need to be transparent, clear, concise, and accessible. Some disaster situations require more expertise than a community may have on its staff. When hiring outside expertise, look for someone with crisis communications experience.
Communications about the COVID-19 pandemic were stressful for local government leaders because some public health messages from federal and state government leaders were inconsistent with local public health recommendations. It was critical for local governments to move quickly to provide accurate, consistent, data-driven information to residents on the crisis using multiple platforms.
Broomfield City and County, Colorado, began issuing Broomfield COVID-19 updates starting February 27, 2020, providing them daily from March 10 to June 30, and then weekly starting in July. Broomfield launched its Public Health COVID-19 webpage on March 17 and began publishing daily safer-at-home activities on Facebook on March 18. Later, Broomfield mailed all 9,000 residents information on how to access the latest news and , launched a podcast by the mayor, and set up a new call-in hotline for seniors and others to get updates via phone messages. A chalk artist created positive public health messages across the community at popular trails, parks, and open spaces.
Virtual Broomfield town halls began on April 7, and later transitioned to virtual council meetings. These meetings kept residents and businesses informed and provided a forum to answer their questions. To keep residents up to date on vaccine cases, hospitalizations, deaths, news, and vaccinations, Broomfield has organized several easy-to-navigate pages on its website, including the latest news and vaccination data.
Some communities used television to publicize critical public health information. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the San Antonio Mayor and Bexar County Judge held joint news conferences for local television, as did the Oklahoma City mayor and public health director.
Relationships and Practice
The key to preparedness, Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold says, is developing relationships, having regular communication, and training. “We don’t wait for an emergency to establish external relationships with our community partners. No emergency is too small to coordinate efforts, including weather events. Cross-department teams are the norm in Decatur and everyone understands each other’s roles. Many members of our emergency management team have worked together for 10–20 years and they have established contacts with other leaders in the region.”
Decatur’s management team of 30 undertakes a tabletop disaster preparedness exercise every year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines tabletop exercises as “an instrument to train for, assess, practice, and improve performance in prevention, protection, rand response capabilities in a risk-free environment.” Arnold noted that the August 2009 exercise was specific to H1N1 and in that scenario “the city manager did not survive.” Decatur adapts tabletop exercises from FEMA so they are relevant to their community. Decatur has train tracks in its community so they chose a hazardous materials exercise with a train derailment one year. They also have done an active shooter exercise, as well as a memorable zombie apocalypse exercise.
Like Decatur, the city of Surprise, Arizona, has a well-trained emergency team. The city also tapped into a wide range of expertise in its community to respond to the COVID-19 challenges. The director of human services and vitality became part of the Incident Command Team because of his established relationships with the schools, senior programs, and nonprofit and faith communities. His connections with those organizations made it possible to get 12,000 meals prepared and delivered to seniors overnight. A side benefit: getting trained in the Incident Command System was a welcome professional development experience for him.
Addressing Equity Disparities
The COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionate impact on some populations, particularly the elderly, people of color, those living in neighborhoods with a high level of poverty, and nursing home residents and workers. Many communities began tracking COVID-19 outbreaks by zip code so they could target resources to those areas, including testing and vaccination sites. The office of equity and inclusion for the city of Dallas developed an equity impact assessment tool to examine race (concentrations of people of color), economic status (homeownership, poverty levels), and age.
“We are intentional about leading with equity and how that informs our priorities and goals,” says Genesis Gavino, resilience officer, Dallas, Texas. “That helps us address both the longstanding gaps, such as infrastructure and economic mobility, as well as emerging issues of access to testing and vaccinations. For example, initial county health data showed that our older residents were the ones dying from COVID-19. We structured our initial equity impact assessment tool to look at additional demographic data and saw that our communities of color were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 virus and lacked access to care. Many people living in certain zip codes couldn’t leave home to access care as they didn’t have transportation. That prompted us to deploy mobile testing units to these neighborhoods. We also used our CARES Act funds to provide PPE to businesses and childcare facilities that were still open in the pandemic.”
Closing the digital divide has become a priority as the pandemic affected everything from virtual school to signing up for vaccines. Led by the resilience division, Dallas uses its equity data tools and performance measures to identify the needs, prioritize areas for deployment of resources, and to document progress in addressing the gaps. For example, the city makes sure that those participating in the community Wi-Fi pilot also have access to additional supportive services offered by the city and its partners, such as laptop bundles through the Dallas Public Library or mortgage and home repair assistance through the housing department.
Resources from the federal government have been important in addressing the digital divide. Dallas launched a Digital Navigators Program with Coronavirus Relief Funds, and will continue the programming with its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) allocation under the CARES Act to reach specific populations. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides additional funding opportunities to tackle such entrenched challenges as digital literacy. “The ARPA recognizes that people need digital skills to use the Internet,” Gavino observed. We are committed to ensuring digital literacy skills are a key component for our digital divide efforts and being intentional about weaving it into existing programs and support services so that it can continue once relief funding from CDBG or ARPA ends.”
Building a Culture of Resilience
What does resilience mean? Dr. Gavin Smith, a professor in the department of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and an expert in disaster recovery, stresses that resilience is more than bouncing back from disaster. “Disaster resilience is returning to something that we want to be—something that we aspire to be,” he says.
Strong leadership is needed to help a community focus on its long-term future. To build a culture of resilience, the community needs an awareness of the forces of change on the horizon, including emerging threats and hazards. That understanding lays the groundwork to conduct an assessment of the community’s physical and social vulnerabilities so that a plan can be developed to mitigate those risks. Once the disaster recovery and resilience plan is completed, it should be adopted and updated annually.
Local government leaders are ideally suited to convene the range of stakeholders who need to be engaged in disaster resilience and recovery planning: emergency management, public health, schools, higher education, other local governments, utilities, small businesses, the faith community, and nonprofit organizations, including the local chamber of commerce, councils of governments, and regional economic development organizations.
The scope of the planning process will vary from place to place. With COVID-19, the initial focus might be on supporting small businesses and identifying workforce gaps and training priorities. What’s important is that everyone understands the planning goals and decision-making process. Examining pre-existing planning efforts can help stakeholders move toward consensus on the community’s priorities for resilience and mitigation investments.
“We are taking a bird’s eye view with our resilience efforts to make sure it connects with our other priorities,” notes Genesis Gavino. “Our broadband initiatives can connect with our housing and infrastructure priorities so those who enroll in the digital literacy program can access workforce housing. When nonprofits seek funding from Dallas to be service providers, we link the solicitation back to our Resilient Dallas Strategy and Equity Indicators Report so everyone understands the vision and expectations we have.”
While local governments often lack the resources they need to tackle long-term resilience needs, the American Rescue Plan and other federal grants offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure the funding needed for strategic resilience investments. Many cities and counties are prioritizing long-lasting and sustainable investments. That could be moving forward on capital projects to tackle storm water run-off or addressing socioeconomic challenges like affordable housing, economic mobility, and health access.
City and county managers agree that the keys to success are identifying the priorities, engaging the community, and avoiding recurring costs that could make it difficult to sustain a program. Communities want to invest in the future and reinvigorate their downtowns. That may mean more support for small businesses, workforce training for an evolving economy, a better telecommunications network, digital literacy, and/or wrap-around services for the homeless to access services, housing, and employment opportunities.
When confronted with the pandemic challenges, local governments moved quickly to adopt virtual operations and found new ways to engage with their residents, businesses, and staff. The American Rescue Plan Act has the potential to transform our communities in a meaningful way and make them more resilient. Now is the time to plan for the future and to update your disaster and economic recovery plans. Carpe diem!
ELIZABETH KELLAR is director of public policy for ICMA, Washington, D.C. (email@example.com)
Resources to Support Preparedness and Mitigation
ICMA Free Coaching Webinar: Response to Emergencies That Impact All Citizens: Rights of the Individual vs. Health and Welfare of Community
New Course: Planning for Economic Recovery: ICMA and the International Economic Development Council have developed this new virtual training course in partnership with FEMA. Filled with examples of successful economic recovery strategies, this interactive webinar offers opportunities for small group discussions and peer learning.
FEMA Training Exercises and Tools
Hazardous Material Spill/ Contamination Exercise Starter Kit
The National Exercise Division within FEMA developed a customizable tabletop exercise to examine the ability of a jurisdiction or organization to respond to and recover from a hazardous material spill/contamination either at a facility or by train derailment. The exercise starter kit contains a situation manual, facilitator’s guide, slide deck, and scene-setter videos.
Download it from the Preparedness Toolkit. (NOTE: Free registration is required to access this section of the Preparedness Toolkit.)
Cyber Preparedness Board Game
FEMA has partnered with cybersecurity experts to develop an engaging strategy board game to explore the dynamics of cyber preparedness. Using game boards and playing cards, players group together within the game “community” to decide how to invest cyber credits to protect essential services. The community weathers multiple cyber incidents, shares information, and negotiates to prioritize cyber response resources needed to sustain the community’s critical functions. Through game play, players learn aspects of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s cybersecurity framework. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Cyber Ready Community Game” for more information or visit