Experiences Gained: Develop Documentation Systems During Disaster Planning

Document, Document, Document

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Closeup of a green pen checking off a box on a checklist.


Providing proper documentation is crucial to ensuring that your community will receive and keep funding assistance following a disaster. Yet, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the detailed documentation requirements for FEMA, HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program and other funding programs.

It’s always a good idea to enroll in a FEMA or CDBG-DR training course prior to a disaster; both offer a wide range of in-person and Web-based training courses.

Localities that don’t meet documentation requirements may have their claims denied, funding halted, or even be required to return assistance funding they have already spent. “We learned that the hard way with Hurricanes Rita and Ike,” says Orange County’s Burton. “We were denied claims because we didn’t save receipts. If you don’t have the documentation, you won’t get the funding.”

During disaster planning, develop checklists of documentation requirements from funding sources. Make sure you and your staff know what documentation FEMA requires. Remember you won’t request funds until after the disaster, so keep documentation requirements in mind during the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Also provide those in the field with documentation checklists that they can take with them. And make available checklists of documentation needed for CDBG-DR or other grants to homeowners.

“Learn how to document everything, it’s the most important thing,” says Jr. Shelton, mayor of the City of Central, Louisiana. In August 2016, Central was still recovering from damage caused by flash flooding earlier in the year, when more than 7 trillion gallons of rain fell in a 48-hour period, swallowing the city in more than four feet of water and in some places, up to six feet.

Initial forecasts underestimated the amount of rain the area would receive. Central, which has ample experience with hurricanes and was well-prepared for typical disaster scenarios, had no way of anticipating the amount of damage the rains would cause. Of its 27,000 residents, 25,000 were impacted by the flood, which resulted in more than $10 billion in losses. And with the damage came mountains of paperwork and documentation required to successfully apply for and keep FEMA funding.

This can be extremely difficult in the confusion and disorganization that follows a natural disaster. “When disasters happen, it’s controlled chaos and you have to document what is going on,” says Orange County, Texas, Commissioner Barry Burton. In March 2016, excessive rain caused the Sabine River north of Orange County to reach record-high levels, compromising the integrity of the Toledo Bend Dam and forcing dam operators to release water and flood the county. At its peak, the amount of water flowing over the dam per minute was equivalent to the water flow of Niagara Falls.

“For us, FEMA needed to see a picture of the water when it was at its highest level,” Burton adds. “We couldn’t show a picture and say, ‘Well, this is where the water was.'”

Take photographs and document damage as soon as it is safe to do so.

Keep specific, detailed records of hours worked and work performed. These demonstrate your community’s investment in recovery, which can help determine recovery cost-sharing ratios required by FEMA. Likewise, make and keep copies of all documentation. “Have redundant systems in place. Think of the old saying ‘Two is one and one is none,’” says City of Central Councilman Shane Evans. “Have all information in hard copy and digital format.”

Use cloud storage to ensure document safety. Instruct staff to scan and upload documents immediately. Organize documents by type of reimbursement and set up a file-naming protocol.

Once your community receives disaster assistance funding, you will need to keep and manage records on all projects and expenditures so that you can demonstrate proper use of funds. Be prepared for audits by ensuring that all documentation is well-organized and easily accessible. Retain files for at least five years after the grant closeout date.

“Don’t underestimate the burden that documentation requirements can put on your staff, especially for smaller communities,” says Steve Traina, deputy director of economic development and disaster recovery, IBTS, who has worked with communities recovering from disasters, including both Central and Orange County. “Be realistic about how you’re going to handle the increased workload.”

Consider if a third party can help you manage documentation and submittal requirements. The FEMA state applicant liaison (SAL) and public assistance coordinators can assist with documentation compliance.

Planning for a natural disaster should be an ongoing process for your community. Don’t plan for a perfect plan. Instead, strive to make your plan better than the one you had last quarter, last month, or last year. Look for how you can incorporate other communities’ experiences with response and recovery into your planning efforts.

This article appeared as part of “Strategic Disaster Planning: Tips to Give Your Community a Head Start,” the cover article in the International City/County Management Association’s (ICMA’s) April 2017 edition of Public Management (PM) magazine. It was written by Karen Johnson, IBTS market research manager, and Avery Share, IBTS research analyst. 

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