A severe flood in 2008 washed away roads, dams, and bridges in Johnson County. Left with nothing, many homeowners lacking flood insurance along the newly planned I-69 route painted “Make me an offer, Mitch” on their flooded homes as a last hope of solvency. A nod to then-Governor Mitch Daniels who was pushing ahead with I-69 expansion plans in the county.
Stephanie Sichting is the Johnson County Emergency Management Director. She’s been with the Emergency Management Office since 2000 and has seen all the growth and numerous disasters that have hit the county first hand. “I was here in 2008 during that year’s flood. FEMA came in after our recovery started and said we needed a hazard mitigation plan to buy out the homes that got flooded,” she says.
Johnson County has learned and changed a lot since then. The county of 158,000 grew by 13% from 2010 to 2020, adding roughly a small city’s worth of residents plus significant new slab warehouses and logistics facilities that bring increased HazMat risks.
FEMA mandates that mitigation plans are updated every 5 years. “This process includes hazard mitigation analysis of the county and the cities, towns, and unincorporated areas of the local communities,” says Carey Slauter. Slauter is a Senior Consultant with VPC and spearheaded the latest mitigation plans for Johnson County. He’s also contributed to the previous two plans submitted since 2008.
“Each community has its own needs,” he adds. Franklin, for instance, was devastated by the 2008 flood but Greenwood was largely spared.
Vantage Point began consulting on the latest mitigation analysis in 2019, picking up where the IUPUI Polis Center left off in 2008. “They [IUPUI] were the only ones doing it at the time,” reflects Sichting. “But they put a lot of the work of preparing and writing it on us.”
This marks the first time Vantage Point has worked on a mitigation plan. An initial draft was submitted in February 2020, just before COVID-19 shook up much of the planning resources in most areas. A final revision has just been submitted to FEMA through the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
The process of compiling and writing the plan is no small feat. Each unit of government sends representatives to the planning committee, as well as utility companies, fire departments, police departments, school districts, and the Red Cross.
Altogether, 35 people were involved. Elected officials within the county and towns and city councils were tasked with approving the plan — a feat that clears a legislative hurdle higher than most legislation that passes through the Statehouse or Congress.
“Once approved, those places are eligible for hazard mitigation funds to prepare for the things identified,” says Slauter.
“I don’t know if FEMA’s criteria changed,” says Sichting, “But Carey’s so meticulous he spoke directly to FEMA to understand precisely what needed to be done differently this time.”
“This time around, FEMA is asking things like, ‘How many houses were added into the communities’ and to prove how each community integrates the mitigation plan into their master plans,” says Slauter.
For instance, there are increased HazMat concerns from new slab warehousing along the expanding I-65 corridor and a significant increase in bedroom communities that are expected near I-69 (formerly S.R. 37). This might result in location and staff changes for future police or fire departments.
Among the changes FEMA requested, VPC assisted Johnson County officials review and compile more detailed information on the county’s dams, drains, and waterways. “I know ours will be a better plan because they’re requiring this,” says Sichting.
“VPC was really good to work. Just really good to work with,” says Sichting. With a chuckle, she adds, “And I’ve learned my lesson to save newspapers. Each of these plans requires us to document news stories of every snowstorm, tornado, and flood that happened in the last five years!”