|"We felt like we needed something after Katrina to help homeowners be better prepared."
|Rhonda Price, Gulf of Mexico Alliance|
When preparing coastal communities for natural hazards, there is only so much that government can do. Homeowners must play a role in protecting their homes and families from the risks of natural hazards, such as hurricanes and floods.
To help reduce potential property damage and risk to human life, coastal managers in Mississippi created an easy-to-use guide to help property owners navigate tasks such as gathering emergency supplies, strengthening their homes, and obtaining different kinds of insurance that can aid in recovery.
Modeled after a similar guide developed in Hawaii, the Mississippi Homeowners Handbook to Prepare for Natural Hazards is the first in a series of guides being developed by states in the Gulf of Mexico. Alabama is set to release its guide in February.
“The guide contains all the essential information that homeowners need to help reduce the risks to their family and property,” says Tracie Sempier, coastal storms outreach coordinator for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. “It’s an important reference of all the things they can do to be prepared.”
“Hopefully many coastal—and even inland—states will consider doing them,” says Dennis Hwang, extension faculty member for the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program and one of the creator’s of Hawaii’s guidebook. “Now that these are getting going in the Gulf, we would love to see them propagate.”
Hwang says he would like to see as many states as possible create the guidebooks because “homeowners are really one of the weakest links in terms of preparations for natural hazards. Government can do a lot of preparation and planning, but if homeowners are not prepared, when there is an event the government will be overwhelmed.”
While there is a lot of technical information available on preparing for natural hazards, he says most of it is not directly relevant to homeowners.
“The purpose of our book,” Hwang says, “was to go through all the source material and decipher and interpret it into the easiest things homeowners can do to prepare themselves for natural hazards. It does as much homework for the homeowner as possible.”
Hawaii’s Homeowner’s Handbook to Prepare for Natural Hazards was published in 2007 and has already gone through four print runs with over 35,000 copies.
Two years ago, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) Coastal Community Resilience Team was looking for a project, notes Rhonda Price, team coordinator and GOMA resiliency coordinator, who is housed at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.
“We felt like we needed something after Katrina to help homeowners be better prepared,” Price says, “but we didn’t want another book that was going to get lost on a shelf. We wanted a resource tool that would provide vital information that would get used and assist coastal communities with recovery.”
When staff members from the Hawaii Sea Grant Program shared their homeowner’s handbook, the team decided to take the concept Gulf-wide, with each state developing its own guidebook, Price says.
With guidance from Hawaii Sea Grant, Mississippi took the lead in the handbooks’ creation in the Gulf.
The first thing state project partners did was go through the table of contents of Hawaii’s guidebook and identify relevant information for Mississippi.
“We modified the information a bit to work within our state,” Price explains. “For instance, we don’t have tsunamis or earthquakes, so we took those out and adjusted ours to include tornadoes.”
They then created a list of technical partners, such as representatives from the power company and state emergency managers, who could vet the guidebook’s information and help make it relevant to Mississippi homeowners, Sempier says. A technical writer was hired to compile the information and rewrite the sections of the book.
Hawaii Sea Grant provided many of the graphics from its publication for Mississippi’s use.
“Once designed, we went through several rounds of technical edits before we felt like we had the information in there the best way possible,” Sempier says.
The guidebook was completed in July 2010. Most of the initial 5,000 that were printed have been distributed, and a joint marketing effort will be conducted with Alabama at the beginning of hurricane season in June, Sempier says.
“We’ve already gotten a good reception from it,” says Tina Shumate, director of the Office of Coastal Management and Planning in the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, and chair of the GOMA Coastal Community Resilience Team. “People recognize that this is a great product.”
The NOAA Coastal Storms Program is helping to fund Mississippi’s and Alabama’s efforts.
The other Gulf states will follow a similar process when developing their guides, Price says.
“With a concentrated effort,” Hwang says, “most states would be able to do a guidebook in a year, from start to finish.”
He says the keys to developing the guides include having a lead agency or group spearheading the effort, developing technical partners to review the information and provide support, spending adequate time writing, designing, and editing the book, and then creating a plan for distribution.
“Hopefully,” adds Hwang, “as different states develop these, we will create a network where we can learn from each other about the best methods for helping homeowners.”
Paying It Forward
Just as Hawaii helped Mississippi develop its guidebook, Price and Sempier say they would be willing to assist others with their efforts.
“We’d be more than willing to help others develop handbooks for their states,” Sempier says. “It was much easier for us to go through the process having Hawaii as a model. The main information is there; it just has to be tailored to the specific needs of your state and fill in some local examples.”
Price adds, “It’s important to talk to the states that have done it. If someone calls, we would be more than willing to help.”
To view the Mississippi Homeowners Handbook to Prepare for Natural Hazards, go to http://ms.stormsmartcoasts.org/handbook/. For more information, contact Tracie Sempier at (228) 818-8829, or firstname.lastname@example.org, Tina Shumate at (228) 216-4201, or email@example.com, or Rhonda Price at (228) 374-5000, or firstname.lastname@example.org. To view Hawaii’s handbook, go to www.soest.hawaii.edu/SEAGRANT/communication/NaturalHazardsHandbook/updated_Handbook_web.pdf. For more information, you may contact Dennis Hwang at (808) 544-8608, or email@example.com.