Pre-disaster documentation: 8 best practices

Pre-disaster documentation: 8 best practices
By Robby Bizot
Jul 26, 2022
Proper documentation of a site prior to a disaster is critical for maximizing federal funding and accelerating recovery. 

When preparing for a disaster, local officials often fail to prioritize a critical step that helps maximize disaster recovery funding: adequate pre-event documentation. A comprehensive record of a site’s pre-event status is one of the most important disaster recovery best practices because it informs FEMA of how much damage was caused by the disaster, and thus, the amount of funding the applicant should receive for repairs and rehabilitation.

FEMA Public Assistance (PA) funding can be used for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and the restoration of disaster-damaged, publicly owned facilities and specific facilities of certain private nonprofit organizations. The PA Program also provides assistance for hazard mitigation measures to encourage protection of these damaged facilities.

To receive FEMA PA funding after a disaster, it's not enough to merely tell FEMA how much damage occurred; an applicant must also be prepared to show the extent of damage. It is the applicant’s responsibility to provide all documentation as required by the PA Program in a timely fashion to receive grant funding. When necessary to validate damage, the applicant may be required to provide:

  • Pre-incident photographs of the impacted site or facility; and/or
  • Documentation supporting the pre-disaster condition of the facility, such as facility maintenance records, inspection reports, and safety reports.

If your documentation of pre-disaster conditions falls short, you may be denied funding that your community critically needs for full recovery. Follow these recommendations to ensure your community maintains the documentation required to secure recovery funding.

1. Define inspection policies and procedures

An important first step in maintaining proper documentation is to establish polices and standards that address inspection verification practices and document retention. It’s critical that you have procedures and policies in place that define who will perform the inspection (city inspector, code inspector, etc.) what needs to be inspected (streets, lift stations, etc.), the frequency with which each type of facility will be inspected (monthly, quarterly, etc.), how it should be inspected (on-site visual or remote inspection), the maintenance schedule threshold for each type of facility, and how data should be collected.

2. Train inspectors and establish roles in the inspection process

Inspectors should be trained on an ongoing basis to ensure their knowledge and skills stay up to date with current standards for the inspection process. It’s also important to determine who will be responsible for specific aspects of the inspection process to ensure that all sites are inspected in a comprehensive manner after the disaster.

3. Conduct routine site inspections

Routine site inspections are critical, particularly for areas that are especially vulnerable to damage. It’s wise to implement a schedule to conduct site inspections at predetermined dates, and at a minimum, conduct an inspection prior to the start of each hurricane or wildfire season.

4. Document via site photos or videography

Proper photographic and/or video documentation of a site’s pre-disaster condition should be routinely updated, as it’s one of the key components in proving the extent of damage that occurs after a disaster. Detailed photo evidence will help substantiate your claims and increase the likelihood that you will receive funding.

Local officials can take advantage not only of high-definition cameras that are now standard on most smartphones, but also of relatively low-cost, but highly effective, drone technology terrestrial imaging. For communities that may lack the resources to regularly capture photos and videos of an area, a bit of creativity can help ensure enough photographic evidence is still recorded. For example, a community can promote a yearly documentation initiative, where citizens are encouraged to capture photos of the community and send them to a particular source. To increase participation, local officials may offer recognition or small incentives to citizens who send in photos and videos.

Another creative way to capture video of an area without expending many resources is to mount dash cams on city cars and record clips as government or utility staff conduct their usual drives. After designated time periods, this footage can be uploaded to a predetermined file storage location.

5. Retain maintenance records

When making funding decisions, FEMA carefully assesses documentation to be sure a site was not in a deteriorated condition and was regularly maintained prior to the disaster. To receive FEMA PA funding, the applicant must demonstrate that damage was caused directly by the declared incident. FEMA does not provide PA funding for repair of damage caused by:

  • Deterioration
  • Deferred maintenance
  • The applicant’s failure to take measures to protect a facility from further damage
  • Negligence

Thus, the applicant must fulfill their responsibility of maintaining facilities prior to disasters. For example, in the case of damaged street, FEMA may ask for maintenance records that prove that the street was regularly maintained and in good operational order prior to the disaster.

Facility maintenance documentation the applicant may provide to FEMA includes, but is not limited to:

  • Written maintenance plans
  • Maintenance records
  • Inspection records

In the absence of maintenance records, FEMA may review material purchase invoices and activity logs.

6. Use virtual site inspections

Drone and geospatial technology are valuable as they provide reliable on-site data, can capture large areas, and minimize re-visits for inspections. Using drone and satellite imagery to capture the pre-event status of an area allows you to quickly collect critical data without dispatching several inspectors to a site. After capturing aerial images and videos, software with tools such as place markers and rulers can be used to pinpoint specific areas. This is useful for identifying single points of interest, such as site locations, and for identifying coordinates that can easily be passed on to FEMA. Remote sensing and satellite technology are also powerful ways to assess moisture, temperature, topography, and related conditions to establish baselines.

7. Implement technology

Avoid keeping only physical copies of documentation or storing documents locally on computer hard drives. It’s important to have another storage location in case documents become damaged or destroyed at the site after a disaster. Cloud storage is the preferred method for housing important documentation, as it can be accessed from practically any location after a disaster. Storing files in the cloud in an organized fashion also makes it significantly easier to upload required documents to FEMA when applying for aid.

8. Stay organized

It is critical to keep inspection routes, assignments, and documents organized so resources are used effectively and to make the application process go smoothly. Staying organized prevents duplication of efforts in the inspection process and makes it easier to pull together documentation for submission to FEMA.

Create a system that makes it easy to assign inspectors to inspections—and make sure it allows inspectors to update inspection records and keep track of their designated locations. Develop the system with detailed labeling so the appropriate personnel can easily access the documents they need when applying for funding.

Learn more about disaster recovery

Our whitepaper, Disaster recovery: 5 best practices, offers additional insights into the steps you should take to prepare for a disaster.

Meet the author
  1. Robby Bizot, Director, Infrastructure and Buyout

    Robby Bizot is a disaster management expert with over 13 years of experience in disaster recovery and financial management. View bio

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