8 Ways to Manage Your Downtown Through Disaster

I’ve been a downtown manager for seven months, so when folks call me asking for advice, I am amazed that I’ve learned anything that could be useful. Then I remember that Montpelier has experienced two floods in that time. We’re still cleaning up after Hurricane Irene’s pass-through, as is most of Vermont.

In response to the questions I’ve received so far (from other downtown organizations) on how to best deal with disaster, I’ve compiled this shortlist based on what I’ve done and learned during the last two flood events. It’s not everything and is only meant as a guide. Every community will have its own needs so it’s best to assess and respond accordingly.

I am a true believer in finding opportunities when others see problems. I urge everyone to find opportunities for your organizations to be of highest value to your communities.

spume photo by Daniel Barloe

Runoff photo by Daniel Barlow












1. Assess Damage and Loss

This is an important step that I highly recommend. Gathering info will be helpful to FEMA, Emergency Management teams, and will also position you as a source of vital information. While your municipality is assessing the overall situation, you can lighten their load by focusing on the downtown.

Ask your town what info they might need. Ask yourself what info your organization might need, and make a questionnaire. You could focus just on businesses (as I did), or also include residents and/or major assets like buildings. This could be work for your Economic Restructuring, Organization, and/or Design Committees.

Montpelier Example: I created a postcard survey with a few broad questions like “Describe your damage/loss”, and “Estimate the value of damage/loss”. Volunteers assisted in distributing these cards, which were handed back or mailed. With this info, I was able to compile a spreadsheet that I could then pass up the chain. This was important info because we needed to prove to FEMA that we suffered enough for disaster assistance.

I was also able to utilize this info for press releases and when the media called me asking for a statement. I was able to tell them businesses self reported over $300,000 worth of damages. This will give you benchmarks for fundraising.

I noted on the cards that all information was confidential, and would be used for reporting purposes only. I think this is essential for the most honest feedback. In the end, about 1/3 of our business membership reported back with actual value of damages exceeding originally reported estimates.

2. Assist Your Municipality

Your town leaders will have their hands full with public and life safety issues. They will be assessing damage throughout the area and planning to rebuild roads, bridges, and getting displaced residents back into their homes. How can you help? Ask them.

This is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship with your officials. This probably will work best when there is one contact person: the program director, board chair, or other liaison. This could also be work for the Organization Committee.

Montpelier Example: Because we’re in a flood zone and prepare for one annually, Montpelier Alive has the task of keeping all emergency contact info for the downtown stakeholders. During the May flood, I was called and asked for this list. I ended up joining the workers at Command Center and making those calls myself, even though they didn’t ask me to. It was exhausting but essential work. The City didn’t really have the capacity to do it themselves.

Afterwards, the City asked me to find out how much damage the downtown suffered, for FEMA reporting (see #1). They also relied on me to distribute info to the downtown businesses about disaster assistance, so they steered SBA, VEDA, BISHCA info my way. The merchants asked for a meeting with City officials after the flood, which I was able to make happen. (It helps that I have an office in City Hall.) When FEMA came to town, I walked them around and introduced them to shop owners that suffered major loss.

During the August flood, I was relied upon to distribute and convey City notices. We had time to prepare so I made sure everyone knew it and did it. I attended emergency management meetings pre- and post-storm and was treated like a member of the team.

Relieving the City of this work allowed them to focus on more essential tasks.

3. Rally Your Volunteers

volunteers by Andrea Cohen

There's a job for everyone photo by Andrea Cohen

This is an important step! It will help to keep morale high, offer folks an opportunity to feel like they are contributing to the recovery, and will yield new volunteers to your organization. As a manager, you cannot be everywhere at once, but with clear instructions, your volunteer crew can be. Ask them to work their networks when you are in assessment or fundraising mode. Likely, volunteer tasks will cross committees, as people will want to help where it’s needed.

Managers have to attend to the essential tasks, so delegate as much as you can to volunteers. They will understand how hard you are working.

Montpelier Example: In May, I used my volunteers to disseminate information and gather data. A local citizen spearheaded our major fundraising campaign. He solicited donations and promoted the effort. This put us in a good public light (with lots of media coverage to boot). We also attracted new donors.

In August, I posted a note on Facebook for volunteers to meet promptly at 7 a.m. in front of City Hall (the day immediately following the flood) so we can do a damage assessment. Those that had Montpelier Alive Volunteer t-shirts wore them. They came back and debriefed with me. I asked the City to forward all volunteer interests my way so I could coordinate that. I sent folks out asking the businesses what help they needed, followed up with an email. If a business wanted 4 people to move heavy boxes at 10 am, I was able to provide. I even got a call from a youth group in Burlington, and was able to direct them to a project that could utilize them well.

Remember to document everything. Photographs  posted on Facebook will show that you’re working to help rebuild—especially  when volunteers wear shirts with your logo on them! (I have a dedicated photographer as part of my volunteer corps and I call on her often.)

4. Gather and Distribute Resources

Everyone who has helpful information will be trying to spread the news. If you can be the channel it goes through, it will lessen the confusion. You’ll also be able to sort out rumors from facts, remind people when application deadlines are approaching, etc. This can be distributed via email, on your website/blog, via social media, as handouts—as many avenues as possible. If you are providing flood assistance, make sure to write press releases and contact media. This can be work for your Economic Restructuring and Organization Committees.

Montpelier Example: The City and others forwarded all business recovery related info to me, and I presented them at meetings, sent via email, and placed forms in an accessible place near my office, so folks can pick them up when they got around to it. Info about applying for the flood relief money we raised was on our website, Facebook, and in press releases. I also made sure key volunteers knew about these resources so they could talk about them when they were out in the community.

5. Use the Media

Follow up on press releases by calling reporters and asking if they have any questions. If you know of potentially great photo opportunities, tell the staff photographers. Point reporters to stories of interest. Tailor your press releases to the particular outlet. Use all media outlets, including online, print, radio and TV. Playing your odds this way will ensure you get *some* coverage. Don’t wait for the press to call you. Reach out to them. This can be work for Promotions and/or Organization Committees.

Montpelier Example: We got lots of great coverage of our fundraising efforts, due in large part to social media. We wrote and shared press releases with partnering businesses, and made personal calls to outlets. This resulted in a front page photo, and a WCAX TV news item (the reporter asked to be introduced to a business owner, and I pointed him to someone who could really benefit from coverage). Press releases were sent before and after grant application periods and I made sure to call reporters before deadline if I still hadn’t seen it in print. I know of at least one grant application that came in because of that last minute call. I also had a standard press release to issue, and found a way to tie it back to the flood, which resulted in another WCAX news item. Reposted as much as we could on Facebook and on the website.

Remember that you are never “off the record” with a reporter. Ever.

6. Promote Your Downtown

The shops that can rebound quickly will need all the cash flow they can get. If people think it’s a disaster zone (which it probably is), they will not come shopping. Do not desert the businesses that can pull through, they’ll need you to help drive traffic downtown. Promotions and Economic Restructuring work.

Downtown by Marie Countryman

Downtown Montpelier by Marie Countryman

Montpelier Example: Downtown got up and running pretty quickly in May, but the flood hit during what should have been a very busy Memorial Day weekend, and so there was huge loss in sales. Businesses put on “flood sales” and we promoted that online, and through our own e-newsletter. We asked the radio station to remind their listeners that “Montpelier is Open for Business”, which they were happy to do.

This is one area that I foresaw needing work in August, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I’m still meeting with the merchants to brainstorm a fast recovery. It’s generally a time of low activity downtown, and we have no other events right now to push…

7. Support Other Community Efforts

This is also a reminder to see where you can compliment efforts, and to not waste your time duplicating someone else’s work. If there’s a charity that’s already accepting donations for your town/region, perhaps you won’t have to. Promote that one, and help them be really successful. Same thing about volunteer coordination, food/supply drives, etc. It will help boost the community spirit if we’re all supporting one another.  It’s another iteration of being a funnel of information.

Montpelier Example: One of our businesses established fundraising effort just for them, which we helped to promote online. They were able to raise $12,000 in two weeks. This was a separate effort from our own fundraising.

8. Carry On

Assess whether you have the capacity to follow through on your work plan, in light of the disaster. The calendar won’t stop, so this might be a good time to reprioritize. If your organization suffered little loss or damage, I would recommend sticking to the plan. Your work is vital and needs to continue.

Montpelier Example: While the May flood took a deep emotional and financial toll on the community, and we responded as well as we could have. It was a mere bump in the road where our programming was concerned. We still produced Art Walk, Brown Bag (and 8-week concert series), and hosted a bigger and better July 3rd. We formalized our volunteer program as planned and have an open house in a couple of weeks.

The businesses were still recovering when the August flood hit. The material losses were less, yet morale took a slight dip. We’re cleaning up and moving on. Fall is almost here, and the holiday season will be in full swing in no time. Gosh darn it, we are going to have a fabulous First Night party!

It’s our duty to keep the heart of downtown Montpelier pumping while its body mends. We’re going to carry on the best we can.

aftermath photo by Marie Countryman

The day after, photo by Marie Countryman

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