Hazard Mitigation Plan Integration: Driven by Relationships


Between 2012 and 2013, Larimer County, Colorado, suffered two major disasters. The first was the High Park wildfire in 2012. This was followed by flooding the next year in 2013. The damage from these events was severe. During the floods, many residents had to be rescued by helicopter. High water levels turned their homes into islands.

Many residents said they were unable to evacuate because they did not know these disasters were coming. They had few communications lifelines to stay informed of looming threats. The rural nature of the county and the destruction of canyon road systems and communication systems made it hard for county communities to interact with one another. These disasters opened the public’s eyes to the state of their safety.


Soon after these events, the county formed a new agency: the Larimer County Office of Emergency Management (OEM). One of the office’s first steps was to pinpoint the gaps that led to the challenges during these two events.

With leaders and residents of the community, the county developed the Unmet Needs and Community Fragility Study. This study looked at issues related to housing, transportation, private land ownership, communications, and more, for each community in the county.

The study revealed that planning, communications, and private property were the main factors the county needed to address. Residents felt the county and state did not help them enough with problems on their private property. They noted that state and federal programs do not typically allow the use of public funding for private property projects.

To help address these concerns, the study recommended a focus on education and better communication. The county noted in the study that some communities had a greater risk than others. It tailored its findings to address their specific needs.

The final question of the study was, “Where do we go from here?” The county’s actions in the next few years answered this question.

Larimer Connects

Larimer County recognized one key truth related to the whole county: building a community also builds capacity. With this driving force, it formed “Larimer Connects,” a community-led program that lets county residents champion local resilience efforts. A frequent problem in government is the need for “on the ground” knowledge. It is not possible to know what is taking place in every part of a county at any given time. This makes sending and hearing messages hard for both leaders and residents. The Unmet Needs Study says it best: “Only someone from a specific area can truly know what the strengths and weaknesses might be within their community and neighboring areas.”

To address problems in communication, especially in rural areas, the county set up community hubs. These hubs are created by residents who want to help lead work in community resilience. They are usually set up in public locations, such as libraries or meeting spaces. Hubs come in all sizes; they can be as small as a message board or as robust as a full nonprofit organization.

Right now, 18 hubs are spread throughout the county. Half have sheltering supplies in place, in case of an event. Each hub coordinator serves as a point of contact with the OEM, for both information and resource support. When an event is likely, the OEM shares information with the hubs, who send it to the public. This process is different depending on the needs of each hub and can include hub leaders reaching out by phone call, social media, and even ham radio. The hubs are by and for residents; this addresses the vital “last mile” for communication. The hubs also maintain local ownership over the process.

Regulations and Planning

Larimer County recognized that regulation must also play a part in keeping residents safe. It does this through plans and policies in many of the county’s departments.

Larimer County adopted land use and building regulations after floods in 1976 killed 144 people and caused damage that cost millions of dollars. After the 2013 floods, FEMA Region 8 performed a Loss Avoidance Study. This study found that regulations on development, freeboard and critical facilities saved Larimer County $715 million by preventing damage. The county looks at policies and recommendations from other county plans when it updates land use and building codes.

While it was developing Larimer Connects, the county built its 2016 hazard mitigation plan. The county used to be part of a large regional plan where the Community Development Department was responsible for the county’s participation. After creating the emergency management office, the county pursued a countywide plan, including all its jurisdictions. It did this to focus on hazards at the county scale. This plan would solidify many of the projects that the county wanted to develop and made them eligible for FEMA grant funding.

The 2021 Larimer County hazard mitigation plan built on the successes of both the 2016 plan and Larimer Connects. This plan documents recent hazard events, how likely they are to happen, and what steps the county has taken to address them since the previous plan. The plan takes into account that communities are not all the same. Some have more vulnerable populations, and some are more isolated. The plan notes that “vulnerability only occurs when the system that the individual is part of fails to provide equitable accessibility to resources or services, known as access and functional needs, for the individual to survive, respond to, and recover from an event.”

The mitigation strategy section has an updated list of projects that the county and its communities want to do in the future. As they are developed and carried out, the actions from the mitigation plan are brought into other plans and initiatives in the county.

The mitigation plan is only one piece of the county’s risk reduction strategy. County departments have made a concerted effort to help protect the public. Planning and code development play a key part in this. When land use and building codes are updated, the director of the emergency management office works with development officials to review these and recommend changes. This practice allows people to make hazard-informed decisions.

The county focuses on smart growth boundaries where most development is urban infill. This keeps new construction out of hazardous areas. The county reviews and updates its building codes every three years. The codes are highly localized, and account for the county’s varied geography. For instance, new construction in the more rural areas must comply with more stringent codes to keep structures safe from wildfires. Other county agencies also have a hand in disaster preparedness and recovery. The OEM relies on them to help warn residents before major events. Their staff also help the office with damage assessments after an event.

Each community department brings different skillsets and tools into the emergency management process. This makes the cycle more comprehensive and integrates mitigation into everything the county does. For Larimer County, hazard mitigation is constant. The success of mitigation planning in Larimer County is widespread. In just a few years, the county used the disasters that devastated the area to figure out how to address its problems. Creating the emergency management office and the programs that followed has helped to make mitigation an everyday part of county life.

A single disaster event can cause a domino effect in an unprepared community. Larimer County recognized that the opposite is also true: Planning for disasters at every level can make it truly resilient. Residents now have the vital information they need for when the next disaster strikes.

Key Takeaways

  1. The community owns the plan: A high level of community buy-in for hazard mitigation helped Larimer County prioritize the updates to its hazard mitigation plan. It also helped the county integrate this plan with land use planning and building code updates. A local plan should be the community’s plan. This plan does not belong to FEMA or the emergency management office.
  2. Local coordination is key: Local government agencies must not work in silos. Coordination across agencies leads to better outcomes for everyone involved. It reduces the duplication of efforts. It also builds relationships that help in future planning.
  3. Ask all local departments for input: Stress the value of hazard mitigation and get the plan in front of local officials. This can lead to stronger mitigation actions and a better execution of the plan.

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