Disaster Recovery Tips for Downtowns & Commercial Districts

18 Sep

Colorado’s recent flooding caught many people off-guard and led to a state of emergency for many residents. Communities like Boulder and Lyons have been significantly impacted, with a number of residences left completely destroyed by high water and washed away debris.

In July of 2012, Vanessa Solesbee (formerly Rogers) wrote a guest column that included the tips below for community leaders to help businesses and residents rebuild in the aftermath of these dramatic floods. A continuation of this article regarding Colorado flooding will be available next week. Ms. Solesbee was Vice President of the Cedar Rapids Downtown District in Cedar Rapids, Iowa during that community’s recovery from a devastating flood in 2008 that caused an estimated $7 billion in damage and is considered one of the worst natural disasters in US history.

  1. Acknowledge the emotional loss as a community. The stages of disaster recovery are very similar to the stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. It is important to take time to recognize and cope with the deeply emotional parts of the loss that come along with the obvious financial impact of the disaster. If possible, coordinate with local faith-based and community service organizations to make counseling services easily available to disaster-impacted residents and business owners.
  2. Invite participation and feedback from all community members. In addition to elected officials, business and community leaders, it is important to invite residents, citizens, neighbors and other non-governmental thought leaders into the recovery triage and redevelopment processes early. Key neighborhood association leaders and active citizens often have valuable information about how recovery program processes are really working, where dollars are (or are not) actually flowing and where financial and support service provision could be improved.
  3. Delegate a single spokesperson to avoid confusion and conflicting messages. Streamline your legislative priorities and have one consistent spokesperson making asks to your state and federal legislative delegations. It is much more impactful to ask for funding, support or whatever recovery resources your community needs with one unified voice than to have legislators hear multiple and often conflicting stories.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Chances are another community has faced something similar and those involved in recovery efforts will be willing to help share their best practices and missteps. In the wake of the Cedar Rapids flooding, strong relationships were built with Fargo, ND, and New Orleans, LA, two communities who were also devastated by record flooding. The resources are out there and sometimes other communities are just waiting to be asked for their help.
  5. Don’t neglect those that were not directly impacted by the disaster. It is important to engage and not alienate parts of community that were not disaster-impacted. Encourage the downtown/merchants association or local chamber to create a messaging strategy that emphasizes the reasons why reinvestment in disaster-impacted parts of town is important to the future success and viability of the whole community.
  6. Connect businesses with local resources that can help them to navigate recovery support. Engage your local Small Business Administration (SBA) chapter, community college resources and/or local retired business people to help small business owners navigate the often confusing and complicated paper work that comes along with applying for FEMA, SBA and/or insurance money. Small business owners often don’t have the resources or time to navigate the countless forms required to access disaster recovery monies and consequently opt to close their business or leave money on the table because they are unsure what is available to them.
  7. Acknowledge progress in a respectful manner. It is okay to celebrate milestones and small recovery wins, just make sure to do so in a respectful way that recognizes everyone is not at the same stage of disaster recovery. In Cedar Rapids, we held an event called “Floodstock” on the one-year anniversary of the flood, which included a full day of bands, kids’ activities and a 10k race through flood-impacted areas, with all the proceeds going to flood recovery. The event wasn’t without controversy – some residents said that it was too soon for anything celebratory. However, the few negative comments couldn’t compete with the overwhelming response from the community that a little joy is sometimes needed to continue marching down the long road to recovery.

If you are interested in donating to or assisting with flood-relief efforts, contact one of the following organizations:

The Salvation Army



Red Cross



Help Colorado Now


Foothills United Way “Foothills Flood Relief Fund”



Vanessa Solesbee, M.A. is President of The Solesbee Group and an associate of Denver-based firm, Centro Inc. Vanessa specializes in helping communities develop, market, and implement downtown revitalization initiatives with a special focus on parking strategic plan implementation, community branding and stakeholder engagement.

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