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Pittsfield Hazard Plan Gets Federal Approval

The Pittsfield city seal
The City of Pittsfield, Massachusetts
City of Pittsfield

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved Pittsfield, Massachusetts’ Hazard Mitigation Plan.

The approval opens up avenues for further grant opportunities for the city of around 43,000, and sets up a guide to confront any number of emergencies.

“The purpose of a hazard mitigation plan is to identify and assess the city’s natural hazard risks such as flooding, winter storms, and hurricanes, and determine how to best minimize or manage those risks," said Project Coordinator Becky Manship of Pittsfield’s Department of Community Development. “A plan serves as a strategy document for reducing current and future risks to natural hazards.”

The update to Pittsfield’s emergency plan was prompted by the city’s effort to go through the Massachusetts Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness – or MVP – program. Back in 2018, the city used a $40,500 state grant to start redeveloping the plan. The process included a survey to solicit input from community members on their biggest concerns:

“Winter storms, the severe weather, invasive species, and flooding," read off Manship. "Invasive species, we have the zebra mussel in our lakes and everything, and the Asian longhorn beetle and those kind of things.”

The new document was created in conjunction with community stakeholders, public input, and a consultant. It gives the city a separate, individual plan from the countywide plan it used to be a part of. Manship says Pittsfield is already reaping the rewards of the new plan.

“We the city received an MVP action grant from the state for $814,524 for the Churchill Brook and West Street culvert replacement project, so because we have the hazard mitigation plan updated and because we’re an MVP community, we are eligible for more grant funding,” she told WAMC.

The federal approval of the plan also allows Pittsfield to apply for pre-disaster mitigation funding from the government.

“Mitigation is any activity you take to lessen the impact of risk," said Jamie Caplan. "So for instance, we can’t stop winter storms from happening, but we could certainly cut down trees prior to winter storms so they don’t impact our power lines.”

Caplan owns a consulting firm in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is in analyzing infrastructure, regionally specific natural hazards, the ongoing impact of climate change, and navigating the federal government’s requirements for mitigation planning. She worked with Pittsfield on the plan – as she has with communities across the country.

“Pittsfield took a really good look at its population," Caplan told WAMC. "They were very interested in looking at the economic impact of these hazards. They were considering their small as well as larger scale businesses. They were considering the homeless population. There was a lot of concern for how do lower income folks handle disaster or even just a heat wave.”

Pittsfield’s Interim Commissioner of Public Utilities, Ricardo Morales, worked on the plan. He says one example of the kind of preparation for emergencies it includes is a documentation of the 20-odd dams the city owns or maintains.

“We have within the plan shown the inundation maps with timing, where flooding would be if a dam collapses, what time it reaches certain points in the city, which points in the city would be affected by that, and with that, we also combine it with the rest of the plan to make sure we have enough coverage for response,” he told WAMC.

To abide by FEMA standards, the city must update its plan every five years.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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